If you weren’t concentrating you could be forgiven for thinking Revolution School was Summer Heights High.
The drone shots flying over Kambrya College are reminiscent of Chris Lilley’s opening credits, there’s a troubled female who causes class disruption and a drama teacher the narrator tells us is the school’s very own Mr. G.
But Revolution School is no mockumentary. It’s a 4 part documentary filmed for 12 months at a public high school in Berwick, outer south east Melbourne. After finishing in the bottom 10% of schools in Victoria on Year 12 results, principal Michael Muscat decides it’s time for radical change. He turns to Melbourne University Graduate School of Education for help and producers Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder take us along for the ride.
The series uses both fixed rig and roving cameras, but unlike SBS series Kebab Kings, cameras are not hidden and consent isn’t justified with a small disclaimer at the doorway. With minors, teachers and parents all filmed this is clearly a community effort (a handful of faces are pixellated).
There are cameras in classroom, offices and exteriors showing both students and staff at work and play.
Melbourne Uni’s Professor John Hattie, who heads up a national study commissioned for the series, concludes that it isn’t class sizes, facilities, funding levels or testing regimes that improve grades, it’s the learning relationship between teacher and student. His methodology recommends learning targets and criteria for each class so that both student and teacher can track their achievement. A programme known as SEAL (Select Entry Accelerated Learning) is put in place for high achievers.
Amongst the students who are profiled is a personable 15 year old girl who attributes her disruption to bullying, and a 13 year old boy having home problems with parents -he will also have to answer questions about drug paraphernalia. There are also occasional quotes from other students as young as 12.
In addition to Principal Muscat, we meet Asst. Principal Jo Wastle, a former student who has risen through the local ranks. “I guess it would be fair to say I like to have control of the situation,” she tells us before ordering students to remove piercings and jewellery. Look out.
Other teachers include sub school leader Brett Wilson, English teacher Pete Wallis and first year teacher Grace Wong, whose biggest challenge is establishing order in her class. Maths teacher Cam Denham (pictured) -who also runs Drama- uses YouTube clips and headphones in class so that students can work at their own pace with technology they enjoy. Experts are also brought in to assess the teachers at work.
The challenge for the show is to distil its vast footage into storylines that work for television and on that front it has mixed success. Aside from setting lesson targets, I wasn’t always clear on the radical methodology (is everyone in SEAL or just some?). One teacher appeared to score his class behaviour at 5 minute intervals, based on his own review and the overall mood. There is also the question of how behaviour changes when cameras are present. Are kids playing up more? Are Assistant Principals more draconian? Probably.
As television we also need to connect with the characters and I suspect stronger casting would not have gone astray.
But clearly this is a project where hearts are in the right places and I’m sure there is a feelgood ending coming and presumably a lift in Kambrya’s grades. I hope none of the students find themselves the targets of social media nor tabloid headlines -they are minors after all.
Revolution School works effectively as a ‘day in the life of’ snapshot, but needs more compelling story arcs if it hopes to be more than a quiet revolution.
Revolution School premieres 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.