Reality TV School Shows – How Valid are They?

Reality shows featuring schools have become common place on British T.V. over the last decade.

One well-known example is the ‘Educating’ series, which started in Essex in 2011, then visited Yorkshire in 2014, and then another three series, with the latest airing in 2017.

Each series followed one school through an entire year, with cameras going into lessons, and interviews with several students, teachers and managers.

Another example which is more a creative work done in conjunction with the children, is ‘Our School’ on CBCC…..

In research methods terms this method is a combination of ‘non-participant observation’ and semi-structured interviews, and these sources shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand because real life educational researchers rarely get access to one school for an entire year, so there is a rich vein of data here.

However, these are not works of sociological research, they are documentaries, produced for entertainment purposes and for a profit, so we need to be cautious about how useful they are.

Practical issues

Given the problems of a researcher gaining access to a school, having these shows done for us is great, as someone else has already gained access!

Theoretical issues

Representativeness may be limited – it’s likely that only schools which are doing OK will agree to take part – schools in special measures probably wouldn’t.

Also, these shows tend to focus on the dramatic cases of students – rather than the ‘normal’ ones!

Validity may be an issue – both schools and teachers may well act differently because they know there are cameras present.

Having said that, we do get something of an insight into the stories of a limited number of students.

However, if the data is not valid, there’s little point!

Ethical issues

These documentaries do seem to be done with the co-operation of the students – so I guess this gives them a voice.

I’m not convinced the teachers would be that happy about this as a whole – maybe quite a lot of railroading by the SLT?

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