Helping Our Teens, review: Covid's lost children deserved better than this

Pupil Jayliyah with behaviour expert Marie Gentles
Pupil Jayliyah with behaviour expert Marie Gentles - Robinson Lakra /BBC

Record numbers of children have been missing from school since the pandemic, according to Helping Our Teens (BBC Two). The attendance officer at Beacon Hill Academy in the Midlands explained why: “Young people have got used to being at home. Parents have got used to not having the pressure on them to get their kids out of bed and into school. Habits have developed.”

This was the introduction to the show, but what followed didn’t seem linked to the pandemic at all. Nor did it address children who were choosing to stay at home, with parents who couldn’t be bothered to send them in.

Instead, we revisited a child behaviour expert, the appropriately named Marie Gentles, last seen in the 2021 series Don’t Exclude Me. Gentles believes that punishing a child for bad behaviour is not dealing with the problem; instead, she works out why they are behaving that way and offers them various coping strategies. It is a very sympathetic approach, but apparently an effective one.

The programme, too, is sympathetic. Beacon Hill pupils featured here, the young boys in particular, seem vulnerable and sweet-natured. Oliver, a scrap of a thing, is in the headteacher’s office. “I’m very sorry,” he says in a tiny voice, promising to do better. He has been diagnosed as autistic, loves his mum, and looks like butter wouldn’t melt. But the reason for his summons to the head’s office was that he had attacked his teacher. When she told him that he had to go to a lesson, even if just for a few minutes, he put her in a headlock and tried to drag her to the ground. “It looked like I was trying to strangle her, but I wasn’t,” he said.

What the episode showed was the limits of the education system when dealing with children like this. Oliver had been excluded from Year 1 for hitting a teacher, and for the next four years was allowed into school for just 90 minutes a day. He could not behave in school, Gentles diagnosed, because he hadn’t spent enough time in one. Gentles’ approach was worth watching, but the wider issues – parenting, the pandemic – were not tackled. It felt like a missed opportunity.