Tucker Jenkins. Bullet Baxter. Roland Browning. Scruffy McGuffy. Suzanne Ross. If you recognise those names, chances are you were a child or young teenager in the UK sometime during the 1980s, and a fan of the BBC children’s series Grange Hill, set in a North London comprehensive. Grange Hill started in 1978, and was extremely controversial: my friend Emma wasn’t allowed to watch it, because her mum said it encouraged hooliganism and that was obviously a Bad Thing. But it was also hugely influential. We used to act out scenes from Grange Hill in the playground at primary school, all the girls vying to be Trisha Yates with her rebellious blonde hair. At ten past five on a Tuesday and Friday young people up and down the country were glued to their screens, waiting for John Craven’s Newsround to be over and the familiar theme music to begin.
Mrs McCluskey, played by Gwyneth Powell, wasn’t the first headteacher of Grange Hill, or even the longest-serving, but she was definitely the most important. She was introduced in 1981, and immediately set about establishing herself, clashing with students over issues such as school uniform, the school magazine, vandalism and smoking. Grange Hill was an eventful place. Mrs McCluskey had to deal with bullying, truancy, racism, abuse and shoplifting. Students were suspended left, right and centre. There were deaths – Jeremy Irvine at the bottom of a swimming pool, Danny Kendall from an unidentified brain disorder – and, of course, there was Zammo McGuire’s brush with heroin. Just say no, Zammo! But Mrs McCluskey steered the school through every crisis, styling it out in an assortment of terrifying polyester blouses, surveying all with her steely blue eyes.
In her first few years, Mrs McCluskey seemed to be the kind of authority figure who existed to allow people to rebel against them. She cancelled a school trip because the students were too scruffy, and banned access to the school buildings at lunchtimes. She got into many a confrontation over infringements of uniform. Eventually, though, she came to be the epitome of firm-but-fair leadership. She listened to what people had to say and was not afraid to change her mind. She saved the life of Harriet the donkey by allowing her to become the school pet (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want a headteacher who allowed you to have a donkey as a school pet?) She supported Miss Partridge, a single parent, when the governors wanted to have her dismissed, a storyline that’s a real sign of how times have changed. She even threatened to resign herself unless they backed down. She was indomitable, but never unapproachable, and many a storyline featured students going to see her for help when they recognised that the situations they were in were too big and serious to be kept to themselves.
This latter point was phenomenally important, because if there’s anything students need to know, it’s that teachers will not only set boundaries for them (which Mrs McCluskey does, in spades) but also have their backs if they need support. When the loner Danny Kendall was being victimised by the French teacher Mr Bronson, Mrs McCluskey made it quite clear that she wouldn’t have students at her school being treated like that. She visited Zammo at home when he was recovering from his overdose, and stayed in with him to allow his exhausted mum to have some time off. She cared about her school as a place where people grew up, made mistakes, and learned how to become a part of the world. Which is, really, what matters; and it’s important that students see teachers as people who can be trusted to guide them through difficult times.
I have no idea how Mrs McCluskey would fare in today’s world of league tables and performance targets. I’m imagining she’d roll her eyes at nitpicking over accountability measures, and perhaps have a quiet swear, back in her office, about buzzwords and hoop-jumping and quick-fix ways of gaming the system. She’d be in favour of slow learning, enrichment activities, school trips and space to grow. I suspect it’s hard to be a Mrs McCluskey, nowadays, and that’s a sad thing. But her footsteps still echo the corridors, and she still exists in the minds of millions of people as the model of what a headteacher should be.