As children across the UK prepare to start a new school year, we’ve created a short list of documentaries to watch online to better understand the education system and student life from around the globe.

As children across the UK prepare to start a new school year, we’ve created a short list of documentaries to watch online to better understand the education system and student life from around the globe.

From France to Siberia, America to India, these documentaries represent a gamut of school experiences from the perspective of the students.

Etre et Avoir / Nicolas Philibert / 2002 / France / 104 mins

Etre et Avoir charts half a year in a tiny single-class school in rural France, as teacher George Lopez gently guides his 12 pupils, aged 4 to 11.

Quickly becoming a classic of observational cinema, Etre et Avoir is a heartwarming exploration of learning and growing up… and of the patience, humour and faith of great teachers.

Watch on Prime Video.

Please Vote for Me / Weijun Chen / 2007 / China / 50 mins

Please Vote for Me follows an experiment in democracy in the city of Wuhan, central China. Specifically, at Evergreen Primary School.

The first ever elections for class monitor are under way, and we follow three eight year olds as they compete for the coveted position.

In a country where the one-party rule effectively precludes democratic choice, director Weijun Chen has said ‘As a Chinese citizen, democracy remains a deep and heartfelt longing’. Viewers are left to decide if the experiment in democracy has been successful and what it might mean for democracy education in China.

This film is part of the WHY DEMOCRACY? series. Find out more about the other films in this series.

Watch on YouTube.

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go / Kim Longinotto / 2007 / UK / 100 mins

Harrowing at one moment and heartwarming the next, Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go is set at England’s Mulberry Bush School, founded by Barbara Dockar-Drysdale who developed unique methods for working with children suffering through severe emotional trauma.

“Longinotto, director of award-winning Sisters in Law, spent a year filming these children, who are prone to sudden, violent outbursts, and their teachers, who display enormous restraint and sensitivity. The children’s problems are real, deep and stubborn — but the long arc of recovery is clear, with hope for these troubled children just over the horizon. Over the course of 30 years, Longinotto has established herself as one of the most prolific and perceptive practitioners of cinema verité. Here, she and her steady, unobtrusive camera capture an intimate and unforgettable tale of the human capacity to hurt and to heal.” – Jason Silverman, True/False Film Festival

Watch on Culture Unplugged.

Segregated America: A School in the South / Marcus Plowright / 2018 / US / 6 Part Series

Segregated America is a critically acclaimed documentary series about life inside a 99% African American high school in South Carolina. It follows a charismatic principal and his students, including star football players, Ivy League hopefuls, male cheerleaders, and young mothers as they prepare for the next step in life.

The series reveals life through the eyes of young African-Americans, from Homecoming to graduation; from dates at the diner to senior Prom, and captures life-changing moments on the journey to adulthood. This is a high school as you’ve never seen it before and a unique insight into how it really feels to be young and black in America.

Watch all 6 episodes on BBC iPlayer.

The Backward Class / Madeleine Grant / 2014 / India / 90 mins

Winner of the 2014 Hot Docs audience award, The Backward Class follows fifteen students at the Shanti Bhavan residential school in Bangalore, India – the first class of dalit caste students to attempt the Indian School Certificate exams.

After thirteen years of preparation, and with the chance to break the desperate cycle of inherited poverty riding on the results, pressure mounts as exam day nears.

Watch on Kanopy.

What Tomorrow Brings / Beth Murphy / 2015 / US / 90 mins

A year in the life of the first all-girls school in a remote, conservative Afghan village.

Never before have fathers here allowed their daughters to be educated, and they aren’t sure they even want to now. From the school’s beginnings in 2009 to its first graduation in 2015, What Tomorrow Brings traces the interconnected stories of students, teachers, village elders, parents, and school founder Razia Jan.

The girls discover school is the one place they can turn to understand the differences between the lives they were born into and the lives they dream of leading.

Watch on Vimeo.

The Sound in the Cloud / Jerry Rothwell / 2018 / India / 85 mins

‘If you suggest something to a child it always precludes [what] that child could have done if you had not suggested it’ – Sugata Mitra

TED-Prize winner Sugata Mitra pioneered a form of education where children – specifically those in underprivileged areas of the world where schools are sparse – can teach themselves a curriculum through computer-based learning. Director Jerry Rothwell follows Mitra as he explores the possibilities of his theories, meets the teachers and students inspired by his approach, and opens the ‘School in the Cloud’ classroom in the rural village of Korakati, India.

This documentary maps out his theorem and sensitively records the lives of the local Korakati families for whom Mitra’s idea might be a way out.

Watch on Vimeo.

You can also listen to Jerry Rothwell in the Filmmaker Panel episode of our DocHouse Conversations podcast here.


The Most Dangerous Ways to School / 2013 / 5 Part Series

They climb up mountainous paths, swim across rivers, or fight their way through icy wastelands with -75 degrees celsius. This five part series accompanies students around the world on their amazing, and dangerous, journeys to school.

From freezing temperatures in Siberia to the Maasai in the Kenyan savannas, diverse wildlife, extreme weather conditions, and geographic uniqueness characterize these extraordinary ways to school.

Watch all 5 episodes on Prime Video.

High School / Frederick Wiseman / 1968 / 74 mins

Frederick Wiseman’s second film as a director looks at an urban Philadelphia high school, capturing interactions between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Shot over five weeks, this landmark documentary is an early entry in Wiseman’s groundbreaking, decades-long exploration of the life of institutions. It was one of the first direct cinema (or cinéma vérité) documentaries. It was shot over five weeks in March and April 1968.

Watch High School on Kanopy.