If I had been excluded from school as a teenager, I would have been inconsolable. The mere concept of doing something bad enough to warrant getting kicked out would have ended my world. Don't get me wrong, I was by no means a goody two shoes, and I certainly had my fair share of encounters with the headmaster...but all in all, however frustrated or angry I became at school, I could always find some way of containing my emotions and reigning myself in. It wasn't - I would tell my teenage self - worth the trouble. This in a nutshell is what makes kids at mainstream school different from kids that end up at the Bridge AP Academy in West London - the biggest school of its kind for excluded kids in the country. In a moment of upset, it becomes almost impossible for them to control their reactions, and mainstream school, for whatever reason, can't cope.
The idea of making Excluded: Kicked Out Of School, a 3 part, year long, observational documentary for BBC Three in a school for excluded kids was both amazing and terrifying in equal measure. Having a year to make a series is unusual nowadays, and was appealing because it meant we'd really have a chance to get to know these kids. On the flipside, the idea of spending a school year filming challenging teenagers every day could possibly put me off my job forever. As a director, before you start on a project you always end up asking yourself 'why make this?'...so why did I?
Nearly all of us grow up being told that our school days are the best, most important days of our lives. So what happens to the four and a half thousand kids who seemingly muck that up every year? Do they feel, like I would have, that they've ruined their lives? Can they realistically change the behaviour that got them excluded? Can they ever go back to mainstream school, and perhaps most importantly, what does it feel like as a teenager already going through the nightmares of puberty, to be told you've failed?
When I entered the school for the very first time a year and a half ago to carry out some research, I got what I was expecting...Kids mucking about, play fighting, actual fighting, swearing...and a fair few insults thrown my way. I had to learn the ropes quickly... stand up for yourself, show them you care, never ask a teenager what a slang word means as it will only ever bite you on the arse.
What I saw during those first few weeks didn't make me want to spend a year of my life making this series. It was the possibility that over the course of a year working with a brilliant team, we'd have a good chance of getting past the behaviour and finding out what these kids were really like. Stereotypes are useful but by their very nature they're reductive. As a documentary maker you want to start with the stereotype and work backwards to unpick it. The passion, patience and determination of the staff was truly astounding. I had a gut feeling we might be somewhere special.
As it turned out, it's one of the hardest things I've ever filmed. Hands down. My colleagues would agree I'm sure. Winning the trust of the teachers and the kids took a long time, and finding the right children to follow and the right stories to tell was no easy task. After we got past these endless hurdles, the biggest challenge was still ahead...getting these guarded kids to open up about their deepest thoughts and feelings on school and life. They all managed to do it in their own way, and although I was part of that I still find it surprising. Even the kids who shouted and screamed the loudest would sit and reflect on what they felt about themselves and what they'd been through. Why? Here at least there is the time and desire to ask them what they think.
The fact of the matter is that however badly these kids behave, they are just kids and their behaviour doesn't come from nowhere. Often they have experienced tragic events in their lives, through no fault of their own, and they haven't learned the strategies most of us do to manage our emotions. This, as well as getting them their GCSEs, is what the Bridge helps them do.
After a year in the school, getting to know all of the kids in some way, I can't help but think that children who go through difficult times are really quite special. As people often say, something good always comes out of something bad; the kids in this building are pure evidence of this. That isn't to deny they are difficult, challenging and at times downright rude; but the character, wit, intelligence and warmth that these children have, after going through so much is truly astonishing. Unfortunately, in the main a lot of these kids are labeled as useless, as bad, as failures...and they know people think this, which is the saddest thing.
Now it is over, I have almost forgotten the pain we all went through trying to make it...and if you watch it hopefully you won't notice. I hope what you'll be struck by instead, is that when you take the time to listen to these children, you'll discover they have a hell of a lot to offer. It just might not come in the usual package.
Excluded: Kicked Out Of School starts on Tuesday 20th January, 21.00 on BBC Three and will be available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days.
Ellena Wood is the Series DirectorSuggest a correction