Lessons from the past: journalist Shabnam Grewal revisits her 1970s schooldays

In 1977,the BBC documentary programme Panorama visited a west London comprehensive school, causing shock and outcry at the state of education in 1970s Britain. We spoke to journalist Shabnam Grewal, who explores the documentary’s impact on her school and her life in a new programme for BBC Radio 4…

When Panorama cameras recorded a fly-on-the-wall documentary entitled 'The Best Days?' that followed life at Faraday High, a large comprehensive in East Acton, west London. It proved to be hugely controversial. (Photo by William Gottlieb/ CORBIS/ Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1977, Panorama cameras recorded a fly-on-the-wall documentary entitled The Best Days? that followed life at Faraday High, a large comprehensive in East Acton, west London. It proved to be hugely controversial.

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Shabnam Grewal, now a journalist with the BBC, was a third-year pupil at the school at the time. Her class featured prominently– although Grewal herself was, in her own words, “one of the boring kids, just in the background”.

“When the film was put out, it caused quite a lot of upset in the school and in the local area, and made a huge impact on our lives,” she says. “People were incredibly shocked at what the reality was in a large London comprehensive”.

Here, she discusses revisiting her own schooldays for Archive On 4: Panorama Broke My School (Saturday 21 September, 8pm).


Was the school troubled and was the portrait in the film accurate?

SG: I think that’s slightly subjective because I think it was an accurate reflection of my school. Recently, Gurpal Chhokar, one of my good friends who was in my class and someone I hadn’t seen for 30–35 years, watched it. It was really interesting. He said, “I haven’t seen it since it went out but I’m pretty sure it was biased and unfair.” And he watched it and he said, “You know what? That is what it was like.” It was chaotic, noisy, a bit all over the place. But there are people who still feel, even having watched the film, that it was very unfair and that the filmmakers focused on the naughty kids.

Was it a place where you were happy? Did it feel like a safe environment?

I think mostly it did. It was an enormous school – 1,400 kids at one point – so really busy. It was a cultural and racial mix, mostly white kids and black kids, and a small group of Asian kids. And you’re talking about the mid-1970s, so [many issues] around diversity, culture, migration and class are all playing out in that school.

The area was a very white working-class area, East Acton, right next to Shepherd’s Bush, which had a much bigger Caribbean community. East Acton was an area where the National Front [a far-right group] was very visible – but that was Britain in the 1970s. As far as the teachers were concerned, I thought they were great – really nice teachers, caring teachers, good teachers. And they were dealing with a world that was changing.

 

What was the effect of the film when it came out? It was considered shocking.

Yes, it was, and it was also used as a political football to bash comprehensives by people who were still harking back to the days of grammar schools and secondary moderns and saw this as a vindication of all their worries and fears.

In the school itself, there had been a split among the teachers, some of whom wanted the filming to be allowed to take place and some who didn’t. There was a lot of ‘I told you so’. The headmaster had been the driving force for the film taking place. The reason he wanted the BBC to make a film about his school was because he saw lots of stuff that was very ground-breaking. The school had extra resources and they were doing lots of work with kids with problems. I don’t think he thought that people would be so shocked, or how it would look to people whose experience of school was a grammar school, with very regimentedorderly and obedient children. He then left [and the school later closed down]. The interesting thing is he watched the film before it went out and told the filmmaker, “This is a true reflection, this is the school,” and he was happy with the film.

What were the longer-term effects across the education system? Was it used to change the direction of education policy?

It wasn’t a catalyst, it was just one of the many things that fed into things becoming more regimented and controlled around education, under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and then in the 1990s. It’s not that the film changed government policy; it’s more that it gave people the idea that they now knew what a comprehensive school was – and actually what they knew was one comprehensive school in London.

Any final reflections on going into your past?

I worked on Panorama a decade ago as an assistant producer, and as soon as I got the job, I got hold of the film to watch it. From then on, I wanted to find out what happened to people. Where did they end up? Where did they go? And how did it affect everybody? That’s been interesting.

One final thing: we’re so much more used to ordinary people on TV now, because of reality television and so on. In 1977, this was virtually unheard of, for ordinary children to be seen behaving as they do. It had a huge impact, just on that basis.

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Archive On 4: Panorama Broke My School is on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 21 September at 8pm, and will also be available on BBC iPlayer