Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 7)


I was still at school at the beginning of the 1990s, but most of this episode on that decade seemed a million miles away from my day. All that technology in the classroom!  I was way too old to have a Tamagotchi, and I only watched the odd episode of Byker Grove.  I recognised all the music, though, so I was obviously still “with it” – well, as far as I ever was!    It was good fun to see some of the Cool Britannia stuff again.  Oasis over Blur every time: it’s a Manchester thing!   But the BBC’s obsession with pushing their political agenda has really marred this series.  Claiming that everyone in the ‘80s was far too self-obsessed to raise money for charity?  They should be forced to issue a formal apology to Bob Geldof for saying that.  And what was all that rubbish about the government stifling creativity by making people draw wheels?   Also, why does the BBC seem to think that everyone wants interactive lessons with as much pupil participation as possible?   What about all those of us who just wanted to fade quietly into the background?!

Hearing teenagers refer to the 1990s as “back then” and say that their parents had been at school in the 1990s made me feel about 100, but at least it was said to the background music of a Happy Mondays song. No reference to the whole “Madchester” phenomenon, though.  Boo!  I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in 1990, and – uniform not being worn on school trips, presumably to make sure that no-one’d be able to identify the school if anyone did anything terrible – everyone turning up in hooded tops and Joe Bloggs jeans, and strutting round thinking how incredibly cool we were compared to people in London!   We did, however, get Italia ’90.  I was doing my GCSEs then.  I had three exams – three!! – on the day of the group match between England and the Republic of Ireland.  Very stressful day!   It was good to see that the kids knew all about it.  Italia ’90, I mean, not my GCSEs.  And those wonderful Panini sticker albums we all had.  We also heard about Game Boys.  Not being very technologically-minded in those days, I never had one – but my sister did, so I used to play Tetris on hers!   And about all that awful modern art – unmade beds and stuffed animals.  I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.  Give me a nice landscape painting any day!

Back with the actual school stuff, we were reminded about the introduction of school league tables. Ah yes.  If I remember rightly, the first league tables came out during my first year at university.  They’d somehow made a mistake with the points for my school, so it appeared far lower down the league tables than it should have done.  The headmistress hit the roof – understandably – and my school ended up all over the headlines of the news!   Needless to say, the programme, and especially that one really irritating teacher (the one who claimed she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before) did nothing but moan about the National Curriculum and the league tables.  The kids featured in this all seemed very bright and well capable of formulating their own opinions, but Sara Cox was clearly trying to lead them towards saying what the BBC wanted them to say, which really did annoy me.    What on earth was all that whingeing about creativity being stifled by being expected to draw a wheel in art lessons?  What exactly do you expect to do in school art lessons?  I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, so I never had any artistic creativity to stifle 🙂 , but it all seemed like a lot of moaning about nothing.

The moaning about the school dinners was more justified. I appreciate that the government was trying to cut costs, but it really wasn’t one of their better ideas.  But, again, the BBC had to politicise it by encouraging all the kids to say that the government was being hypocritical by allowing vending machines in schools at the same time as they were trying to encourage kids to do more exercise.  Yes, it was a fair point, but a) it all seemed very sanctimonious, b) Sara Cox was clearly trying to put words into the kids’ mouths and c) the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Going back to the point about exercise, Jet from Gladiators – a programme I could not bear! – turned up to take the PE lesson.  There’s been a lot in this series about PE lessons.  How I hated PE!   I would have hated it in any generation!

There seemed to be a lot more about social change and popular culture than about actual school life in this programme – although, to be fair, they did try to tie it into education. The introduction of the National Lottery – and, yes, some of the money did go to schools – was very exciting at the time, although I do now have a nostalgic yearning for the days when everyone did the pools, which were never the same again after the Lottery came in.  No mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, strangely.  The reaction to it all was ridiculously OTT, but it was a very, very big thing at the time.  The Spice Girls got a brief mention.  I’m not sure that the “Girl Power” thing actually influenced society, but it certainly got a lot of attention.   The “coming out” storyline in Byker Grove in 1994  was also covered.  As I’ve said before and have said again, soap operas and similar programmes have done far more to change attitudes over LGBTQ issues, and many other issues, than any sort of official campaign ever has.  And, as much as I often criticise the BBC, kudos to the EastEnders scriptwriters for tying in the recent storyline about the death of Dr Legg with references to the worrying rise in anti-Semitism both in the 1930s and today.

There was also a load of rubbish about how the 1980s was all “me me me”, whereas the 1990s was all about raising money for Comic Relief. Er, what?!   I do remember raising money for Comic Relief at school.  Some of the teachers did “The Stonk” in assembly, which, given that my school was quite formal and old-fashioned, was quite an event.  But schools were involved in raising money for charity in the ‘80s, as well, and long before the ‘80s.  My school chose a different charity every term, and tried to raise money for it.  Saying that no-one in the “Thatcherite ‘80s” was bothered about helping other people, when you think about Live Aid, and all the money raised for disaster appeals both in the UK and abroad (the ‘80s was very much the decade of the charity single), not to mention the BBC’s own Children in Need appeals, and the 1988 ITV Telethon, was just disgusting.

One of the fundraising ideas was a fashion show. Ugh, ugh, ugh!   I cannot think of anything worse.  Maybe it would’ve been great fun if you were slim, glamorous and confident, but … I feel ill just thinking about it.  I suppose that anyone wanting to take part in a reality TV series is going to be confident, but what about all the people who aren’t?  Earlier in the programme, they’d been going on about how wonderful drama lessons were.  Not if you were the sort of kid who just hoped no-one’d notice you were there, and was convinced that everyone was laughing at you behind your back because they thought you were fat and weird, they weren’t!

On to the 1997 general election. They were very positive about Tony Blair: given the general tone of the programme, I’m amazed they didn’t slag him off for not being far left enough.  I completely fell for the whole Tony Blair New Labour thing.  I genuinely thought that he was a decent bloke with a real vision for the country.  Hah!  These days, I change the channel the minute he appears on TV: the very sight of his face makes me want to slap it!   I wish we could get back that feeling of optimism about politics, though.  If a general election were to be called tomorrow, it’d be a case of trying to decide which party was the least bad, not of voting for any positive reason.  Both main parties are a disgrace, and I cannot think of even one politician whom I’d genuinely like to see as Prime Minister.  The positivity of 1997 seems a very long time ago.  Well, it was a very long time ago.   22 years! Bloody hell – how did that happen?!  I was rather put out that they didn’t mention the truly great leader of the 1990s – the one and only Sir Alex Ferguson.   Unlike Phoney Tony, he never let us down!

Most of the rest of the programme was about technology, and made me feel like I was a dinosaur because we had none of it when I was at school. I never used Encarta.  I remember having CD roms for professional exams in about 1998, but certainly not when I was at school.  Web design lessons.  CDs giving advice on job options – and the only mention in this episode of gender-based educational differences, with a comment that the CD never even asked the user’s gender.  Tamagotchis – I remember the craze for them, but I was way too old to have one!  And dial-up internet – which I still had until … about 2010, I think.  The kids seemed to think it was all like something from a completely bygone era.  That made me feel very old!   Hooray for the Take That music, though.  I shall be going to see Take That in a couple of months’ time – I may be a child of the 1980s, but I can do the 1990s too!  Well, some aspects of the 1990s.

Asked which decade they preferred, neither the kids nor the teachers seemed very sure. The general opinion seemed to be that there were good aspects and bad aspects of each of them.  That’s life, I suppose!   There’s one more episode of this to come, but that’s going to be about imagining school life in the future: the exploration of the past’s over.  It’s been very interesting, despite the BBC’s political machinations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they choose for the next “Back in time” series.

2 thoughts on “Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 7)

  1. Your reviews of this programme are fantastic. I think we’d get on nicely based on some of the things you mention. I particularly like it when you notice the BBC injecting their political agenda into these programmes.
    I left school in 2000 so the 90’s was most definitely my decade, but I didn’t recognise much in this. I remember the Tamagotchis, Game Boys, and the IMO awful 90’s music (you can blame my Dad for getting me hooked on 70’s music 😉 ), but I certainly don’t remember the Byker Grove ‘coming out’ thing. I remember the word Gay was used, either as an insult or to express disapproval “Err! That’s really gay!”.
    It also made me feel rather old watching kids refer to ‘my decade’ as retro ☹️
    Looking forward to the next one


    • Thank you so much: it’s always nice to know that someone’s reading! I think a lot of this has been exaggerated to make for better TV. My schooldays in the ’80s definitely never included breakdancing lessons, talking robots or launching model spaceships in the playground! It made me feel really old hearing some teenagers saying that their parents had been at school in the ’90s 😦 .


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