Now that my children attend a state primary, I naturally have more of a vested interest in the future of our education system than I did in that brief moment of idiocy when I allowed my wife to persuade me that I could afford to send them private. I haven’t read what either of the two Daves or Fatty Clarke have to say in their campaign manifestos on the subject, but, whatever it is, I’m quite sure it isn’t radical enough. (I’m rooting for my old Oxford mucker Dave Cameron all the way, incidentally: I had my initial doubts about his touchy-feely tendencies but I went to his launch and his performance blew me away. He’d rescue the country if only we’d let him.) It seems to me that now that parents have all but given up disciplining their offspring and now that children have lost all respect for authority, there is only one way that teachers are ever going to be able to do their job properly again: schools should be given the power of summary execution.
Obviously, it should be done fairly. The errant child should be granted two formal warnings before it gets the bullet/axe/lethal injection/electrodes/death-by-a-thousand-cuts/push into a tank of hungry piranhas. It should also have the right of appeal to the headmaster, who can decide whether it’s just a case of the teacher having it in for the child, or whether the child has seriously got it coming. After that, though, there should be no mercy. Last year, there were 140,000 suspensions in English schools. Imagine how much more smoothly those schools would be running today if instead of ‘being sent home for a few days before being allowed back to start ruining other children’s lives all over again’, suspension meant ‘hanging by the neck until you are dead’.
The Unteachables (Channel 4, Tuesday) took a more limp-wristed line. In what it inevitably described as a ‘ground-breaking social experiment’, it took 16 of the vilest, most disruptive children from three different schools and tried to explore whether there were any circumstances in which these foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, stroppy, insolent, smart-arsed, lazy brats could be persuaded to learn.
Rather like Brat Camp, this is one of those transformation programmes guaranteed to make a parent’s heart skip for joy. First you see the children in their natural state: so intractable you think there’s no way on earth they can ever be made to behave. Then, lo!, the miracle worker appears — in this case a delightfully inspirational teacher with a nice line in flash suits called Philip Beadle — and within minutes the beasts are tamed.
So how did he do it? First, he got down to their level by inviting them to play a game called ‘Dickhead’ and saying ‘shit’ a bit. Then, having earned their trust, he appealed to their ‘kinetic intelligence’ with an outdoor session of kung-fu punctuation where, whenever you reach a comma, a full stop or whatever, you punch or kick or yell like a Chinese martial artist. None of his pupils had ever been so absorbed by an English class and many declared him their best teacher ever.
‘Kinetic intelligence’, by the way, is what in my schooldays we would have called ‘thick as pigshit, but good at games’. It’s one of those terms educationalists have devised to make non-academic children feel good about themselves. There’s another one for the kids who won’t concentrate in class but are brilliant at nattering to their mates and giving the teacher a lot of lip: ‘verbal intelligence’. Naturally the unteachable children were rich in both hitherto uncherished qualities.
‘God. So that’s it!’ we’re all supposed to go, slapping our foreheads. ‘The problem with education isn’t bad children at all. It’s bad teaching. If only our schools abandoned all that old-fashioned pedagoguery and appealed to pupils’ “kinetic intelligence” instead of forcing them to sit at desks learning grammar by rote, we’d all finally get somewhere.’
This, at any rate, is what the ‘ground-breaking’ experiment’s deviser Ted Wragg would like you to think. Which is ironic, really, because you might well argue that it’s Wragg’s pernicious influence as professor of education at Exeter University which has helped to create so many problem children in the first place. He is, after all, one of the main proponents of ‘child-centred learning’ — the mostly discredited Sixties orthodoxy which has been used ever since as a spurious intellectual justification for letting children run riot.
What I thought was most significant about the programme was that not even Beadle could control the kids through force of personality alone. For this he had to rely on the presence of zero-tolerance headmaster William Atkinson, who made his mark within a few hours of the pupils’ arrival by sending the naughtiest child off the course for good. Most schoolteachers simply don’t have this sanction and there’s the rub. If they did, they wouldn’t need to waste time on laborious, academically dubious gimmickry like kung-fu punctuation because the bad kids who needed distracting with that sort of guff would have all been expelled.
Now if only they’d give me a class of disruptive kids and let me try out my own, more radical experimental method on them. It wouldn’t be pretty but, my, what fantastic TV!