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In a two part series, Too Tough to Teach?, Channel 5 look at how one school educates children who are described as having ‘severe and complex behavioural problems’.

“This is the weirdest, craziest place I’ve ever worked but I walk around whistling and singing because I love it.” – tutor Chris Jackson

When kids arrive at Ian Mikardo School, they are aggressive, disaffected and at risk of ending up in custody. The school is the very end of the line for children with severe and complex behavioural problems.  Home to the toughest kids in East London and beyond, the boys that end up here have been permanently expelled from mainstream school with no possibility of returning.

Now, for the first time ever, this extraordinary institution will open its doors, giving unprecedented access to a world we never get to see. Channel 5 has commissioned Too Tough to Teach? from Shiver, a film that will look beyond the boys’ hard exteriors to reveal their lives, their families and the dedicated teachers who refuse to give up on them.

Based in East London’s Tower Hamlets, home of the highest rate of child poverty in London, the boys’ school is run by head teacher Claire Lillis. She arrived at the school when it was doomed under ‘special measures’ and had been through 4 head teachers in 9 months.  Eleven years and two “outstanding” Ofsted reports later, her unconventional methods have proved a massive success.  She employs a social worker as deputy head, a family mentor for parents, and counts a number of ex-students among her staff.

In a school where every child has special educational needs (compared with 2% nationally) the need for a bespoke curriculum is great. Classes are only 8-strong and alongside the more traditional maths and science classes, unconventional lessons such as hair and beauty are taught to the boys, in order to help them understand non-sexual and non-aggressive communication, and challenge their ideas of masculinity. With such a volatile mix of personalities, students can lose control. While other special schools train their staff in self-defence and physical restraint – even using padded rooms – headmistress Claire practices a unique approach to conflict resolution. Bringing two angry teenage boys together to talk through their issues is no easy feat – but she sticks with it until they shake hands.

Skills outside the classroom are also focused on – upstairs there is a bedsit where kids can learn how to cook and change sheets. Parents come in to share their problems and learn new skills with family mentor Linda. With a number of parents currently facing eviction due to new benefits cuts, Linda is their first point of contact in a crisis. By doing home visits together, Claire and Linda not only help support the families but gain an invaluable insight into the boys lives outside of school.

In this intimate portrayal of a school unlike any other, Too Tough to Teach? will follow the stories of a number of kids both brand new and established – and their daily battle to release their potential – in a unique institution led by the strong, charismatic Head teacher Claire. Amidst the obvious challenges there is incredible optimism and positivity from a team that have developed an affinity with students who’ve never trusted anyone. 

“Ian Mikardo is unlike any other school in the country and there are some remarkable stories to be told about its pupils and staff, many of which will break expectations and pre-conceptions. It’s a very challenging environment, so we are hugely grateful to the school and Tower Hamlets Council to allow our team such extraordinary access.” – Ollie Tait, Executive Producer for Shiver

Too Tough To Teach? is made for Channel 5 by Shiver, broadcast date for the series is yet to be confirmed.

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