Fly on the wall documentary series Educating Essex has taken the country by storm since it began several weeks ago. A ratings hit since its debut, the show follows a number of students at Passmores Academy in Chelmsford as they prepare to take their GCSE exams. Straight-talking deputy head Mr. Stephen Drew has become an unlikely celebrity since the first episode aired and is now nationally renowned for his penchant for tucked in school shirts and a love of teaching.
Critics of the show have questioned whether filming students is appropriate or constructive to their learning, but Drew says, ‘Educating Essex has absolutely been a positive move for Passmores. We are immensely proud of our school and doing the show has made us better at our jobs. We are eternally reflective about everything that we do, and being broadcast to the nation has given us a lot more to reflect upon.’
Drew admits, however, that the staff were initially ‘tentative’ about the idea of taking part in the programme. TwoFour Productions approached Passmores around Easter time last year with the idea to shoot a documentary series about a school in a challenging area that had been branded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted inspectors. But when they agreed to the programme, Drew could not have anticipated the overnight celebrity status it would give him. ‘This has been the oddest thing in my life so far. To us, the documentary just shows us doing what we do, and we know schools all over Britain are doing the exact same thing.
‘We are not special,’ he adds, and this has been crucial to the show’s success. The production company behind Educating Essex are also responsible for One Born Every Minute, a fly on the wall show documenting the realities of giving birth in hospital, and The Family, a similar endeavour charting the daily fare of an ordinary household. The events that occur are certainly not extraordinary, but they provide an honest insight into the lives of others.
But Drew is no longer just a regular teacher, and now gets recognised when doing simple things such as having a haircut or playing rugby with his friends. ‘On the pitch, they shout, ‘go in hard on TV’s Mr. Drew’ to the opposing team. Dealing with people coming up to me and saying lovely things about the show is far easier!’ Fame has not yet enticed him to throw in the teaching towel, he reflects. ‘The best thing about my job is spending every day with exciting and energetic young people who are both your harshest critics and biggest cheerleaders. The chance to help them fulfil their potential is a privilege I never get complacent about.’
He looks fondly on his own time as a student reading history and politics at Middlesex University after moving from Cambridge with his high school girlfriend. ‘I never did the halls of residence or shared student house thing as we lived together from the start of our first years at university. Very boring, I know, but true love was so much more important!’ Having been compared by colleagues and friends to David Brent (The Office) and Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers), Drew takes a different tack, likening himself to wizened wizard Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. ‘I’d like to think of myself as him – trusted by everyone, ready to be stern when necessary, but always there to make sure that everyone else is able to be true, honest, decent and focused on the ultimate goal of making the world a better place.’
Drew credits his wife and children with keeping him grounded during stressful times, particularly in regard to viewer outrage that a fellow teacher at Passmores jokingly called students ‘scumbags’ at the end of a lesson. He hits back, ‘I’ve found this reaction very disappointing and lacking in understanding of the reality of working with young people. If people want teachers to be dull cardboard cut-outs with no personality and no ability to have a bit of banter with the students, then so be it.’
‘Our job is to get them to be the best they can be, and I’m proud of the overwhelmingly positive reaction we’ve had to the show. Some of the emotional messages we’ve had have made me cry. I do not think we are perfect, but I feel more content with life since doing the programme.’