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Terms And Conditions

The Back To School signs have been in the shops since June. Bargain uniforms, special offer pencil cases: making spirits plummet as the summer break started. The Autumn Term has begun, so now Christmas displays are sneaking onto shelves; Christmas chocolates next to two-for-one stationery and leftover bargain picnic-ware. If the shops are the mirror of our soul, we're a strange lot, wishing our lives away before the stage we've reached has really quite begun...

The glossy magazines, too, are telling us we need new shoes and a new bag, even if we've had nothing to do with formal education for years. There are pleated skirts and tweed jackets with elbow patches, in some sort of scary hybrid of the first form pupil and the ageing teacher. There are satchels, and brogues worn with little frilly socks. Even the mannequins in the Top Man window are wearing V-necked jumpers, shirts and skinny ties. The whole world seems to be lined up in morning Assembly.

A glance at the UK TV schedules for the last fortnight reveals it too. The new term has begun at Waterloo Road, in Educating Yorkshire, and at Harrow- A Very British School. For light relief, there's always Big School and Bad Education. I tried to watch them all, but didn't make it through an entire episode of any of them. They all struck me as expansions of the cartoon images in the opening titles of Grange Hill, many years ago, offering one dimensional, colourful, but not terribly true images of school life - whether poised as fiction or as documentary. But what strikes me most about these programmes is their similarity. They are set in very different schools: ostensibly, the Thornhill Community Academy in Yorkshire and Harrow School could not seem less alike, and perhaps the citizens of both might be astonished by the comparison, but the television presentation is startlingly identical. You could make a list. The impressive headmaster: tick. The dedicated staff, represented by a few the cameras choose to focus on: tick. The female staff member who seems strict but has a heart of gold, and will be seen in tears of emotion over her charges before the end of episode one: tick. The bemused and tearful parent, probably a mother: tick. The confident older pupils who could bully the new first years but end up as kindly mentors: tick. The bully who is punished and becomes a reformed character: tick. The first year student who feels lost, lonely, homesick, but begins to adapt, tugging the heartstrings with his struggle against adversity: tick. The eccentric teacher who will become one of the stars of the show and ultimately be offered an escape from the classroom and a career on talk-show sofas: tick. The absence of portrayal of the typical, 'normal' lesson: tick. The pointless punishments and the peculiar school traditions: tick, and tick.

Watching these programmes suggests that schools, once you dig through the veneer of riches, fees, buildings, people, and history, are very much the same. Half an hour of BBC2's Natural World: Meet the Monkeys on Friday night underlined it further. The crested black macaques who were the stars of this festival of anthropomorphic sentiment followed all the typecasting of a school-based drama. There was the older, wiser alpha male: headmaster monkey, dispenser of order and justice. The matriarch - outwardly tough, soft beneath. The rebel monkey, who knocked over the camera left knowingly in his path, and defecated in the van left open invitingly. Tear-jerker monkey who had, when young, gnawed off part of his own arm to escape a hunter's trap, and who had been at a disadvantage and socially ostracised ever since. This nature programme followed an identical narrative arc to all those Back to School documentaries and dramas.

It's just TV. It's not an Inspection report. But perhaps it's time to think. As everyone has been to school, everyone thinks they know how education works. But education isn't as simple as shiny new bags and stationery, or as luring people into an attractive stereotype trap. It's not as simple as arguing that the young people of today are as they are because the holidays are too long or the teachers don't work hard enough on syllabuses which are too easy. It's not all gloom: both teaching and learning, at their best, are immensely satisfying and enjoyable, and many schools are happy, friendly places where students and their teachers can be 3D human individuals, not cartoonish tick-box archetypes.

Real education cannot be packaged into neatly-edited segments to fill a programme slot. Perhaps the greatest lesson of the new school term is that what we see on TV isn't the reality of educating anyone, anywhere - any more than what's in our shops can sum up what is working in our souls.