By Chris Jeppesen
Since writing this post, Chris has also participated in an episode of ‘Archive on 4’ on BBC Radio 4, discussing the 1977 documentary and its fallout. You can listen here: ‘Panorama Broke My School’, September 2019.
Broadcast at primetime on BBC1 and introduced by a youthful David Dimbleby, this special edition of the BBC’s current affairs programme, Panorama, promised a unique insight into the comprehensive education system through a fly-on-the-wall look into one West London school. Unlike Panorama’s normal format, in which a narrator guided viewers through a series of set-piece interviews and expert analysis, the programme’s director, Angela Pope, aimed to give viewers a sense of an average day in a London comprehensive. We have found the programme especially interesting, not only for its depiction of school life but also because of the outcry it sparked in the media over the state of education in 1970s Britain.
Best Days? was framed as a contribution to the ‘rumbling argument’ initiated by James Callaghan, then Labour prime minister, during a speech given six months earlier in which he called for a ‘new Great Debate’ on education. In response to rising criticism of the damaging effects of comprehensivization and progressive teaching methods on standards in schools, Callaghan asked all sections of society – teachers, parents, commentators, and employers alike – to come together to discuss how to improve secondary education in Britain. Rather than focussing on the ‘arguments or the experts’, Best Days? instead aimed to show what school could be like for millions of children and their teachers, asking ‘are these really the best days of our children’s lives?’
Pope selected for her case study Faraday School in East Acton, a comprehensive school of around 1,100 pupils, which had been formed in 1966 through the merger of two local secondary modern schools. By the mid-1970s, the school was receiving extra funding from the Local Education Authority as an institution of ‘Educational Priority’ but had also won praise for its pastoral care structures and success in integrating a diverse mix of pupils from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, with around 40% being pupils of colour. It drew predominantly from the area’s most disadvantaged communities and most left the school at the earliest opportunity to enter low paid, low skilled jobs. Only six from the 170-strong 6th form proceeded to university in 1976 (a figure broadly representative of most schools of this type at this time). 
Even after the darkness of the Panorama studio, the opening shot of Faraday School conjures a bleak prospect: grey skies frame the grey concrete playground and stained pre-fab buildings as pupils, huddling under umbrellas, file through the rain to the doleful tones of John Lennon’s Imagine. Once inside the school, we follow the pupils through the school day, most of which seemed to be spent in anarchic chaos with unruly students haranguing ineffective teachers.
Unsurprisingly, its broadcast triggered heated debate. Over the following weeks, both defenders and detractors of the comprehensive system took up their pens, filling newspaper editorial columns and letter pages with angry responses that began with the programme but invariably moved on to address wider concerns about the state of secondary education. While Pope declared her ‘confirmed belief’ in comprehensive education and core aim only ‘to show how ordinary children are educated’, others took her programme to be an indictment of the entire system. Writing as The Observer’s TV-critic, Clive James went so far as to accuse her of wilfully misrepresenting her footage, a claim which led to him being successfully sued for damages. 
The teaching profession appeared particularly incensed. The National Union of Teachers called for a formal inquiry into the programme’s faults, while former and current teachers scolded the BBC for giving a partial and misleading picture drawn from a school that was unrepresentative of the sector more broadly. Where was the footage of the sixth form or more academic classes, they asked, and what did this absence expose about Angela Pope’s hidden agenda to attack comprehensive education? In stark contrast, for those who had long prophesised a crisis in education the Panorama footage seemed to provide decisive proof. These responses were sharpened by the BBC’s decision to wait until the same week as the publication of the latest instalment of the Black Papers, which once gain condemned comprehensive schools for low academic standards, poor discipline, and ineffective teaching methods. The Sun reported that one Tory Councillor had written to the Secretary of State for Education demanding ex-police and servicemen be placed in classrooms to impose much needed discipline, exclaiming: ‘the three-Rs no longer mean reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – but riot, revolt and ‘reck’. In similarly reactionary tones, Christopher Booker used his column in The Daily Telegraph to rehearse Plato’s description of the collapse democracy into tyranny and mob rule. 
The ways in which school life, wider debates around education, and popular entertainment come together is of central interest to the project. In spite of its limitations in terms of representativeness, Panorama’s footage remains revealing as to the ways in which comprehensive schooling was being shaped in the public imagination during the mid-1970s. Fly-on-the-wall documentaries, now such a television staple, were a relatively new form at this time, and while school had long been a popular setting in films and television dramas (see our blog post on To Sir With Love), there had been few such gritty depictions of ‘real life conditions’. The footage fed negative stereotypes that had dogged comprehensives since the late 1960s and fuelled a sense of moral panic about Britain’s youth. Callaghan’s speech and the outcry that greeted Best Days? signalled how overlapping debates about British economic and moral decline, the failure to realise the promises of post-war meritocracy, and rising youth unemployment had all fixated-on schools as the means to diagnose the state of the nation in the mid-1970s.
There seems little doubt that many viewers’ answer to the question posed in the programme’s title would have been a resounding no. Yet, beyond the polemic, it still offers an important insight into school life in 1977, allowing us, for instance, to see the clothes pupils wore and the ways in which they adapted their uniforms, to chart the school’s layout, and to hear the highly gendered careers advice being given to female students. Collectively the scenes give us a personal view of how young people in 1970s Britain experienced a comprehensive school and understood the world around them as they prepared for uncertain futures.
Please have a watch of this video, we would love to hear your thoughts on it and whether it sparks any memories of your own schooldays. Did this really represent the experience of millions of school children in the 1970s, as Panorama claimed, or was it little more than a sensationalized portrait of an atypical school burdened with impossible expectations?
 ‘BBC film “contrived” say Faraday staff’, Virginia Makins, Times Educational Supplement, 25 March 1977, p. 3.
 ‘The Panorama school’, Angela Pope, Times, 28 March 1977, p. 13; ‘The fallible Pope’, Clive James, Observer, 27 March 1977, p. 31.
 ‘Letters to the editor: The one-sided comprehensive view’, Guardian, 24 March 1977; Letters to editor’, Times Educational Supplement, 1 April 1977, p. 68; ‘Get fell in you in ‘orrible pupils’, Sun, 25 March 1977, p. 6; ‘The god in the goggle-box’, Christopher Booker, Daily Telegraph, 26 March 1977, p. 10.