Fifties school series rings bells in reality

And so another year’s silly season stories about school exam
results has passed. Now the nation’s best can look forward to
finding out all about getting into debt at some of the world’s
finest seats of learning.

Meanwhile, an unexpected TV ratings success has been Channel 4’s
That’ll Teach ‘Em. It’s a simple idea; place a group of 16
year olds into a mock-up of a 1950s school, complete with swede,
stodge pudding, sarcastic sirs and misses, and maps painted red,
white and blue by the British Empire and see how they get on.

As with other reality shows, you always get the sense that it’s the
programme makers’ version of participants and reality that’s being
served up. But the programme raises interesting issues of its own.
Its essential premise seems to be how different school is now to
the 1950s. Certainly, as the sound track of the series shows, pop
music seems to have been a lot better then. But where has the
production company been over the past 15 plus years of education
policy? Hadn’t they noticed the return to “traditional values”:
widespread restoration of school uniforms, upsurge in private
schooling, return to selection, moves away from small group
teaching and most of all the emphasis on the 3Rs, tests, exams and
rote learning?

For those of us with an interest in child welfare and child abuse,
the series raises an even bigger issue. Stripped of make-up and
teen fashion the participants looked more like children than
teenage consumers. We saw children reduced to tears, harangued,
picked on, searched, and subjected to physical punishment. At the
time of writing, after eating very little, one girl had already
left saying she couldn’t stand the food. It all makes for good TV,
especially when the camera is focusing on someone who comes across
as a spoilt brat (a disproportionate number of kids came from
private schools). But aren’t there some ethical issues here? What
does informed consent mean in these circumstances? Lots of parents
want to see their children on a stage. Do these children really
appreciate what the consequences can be of appearing on a show
watched by so many?

However, the truth is that most of the young people in this series
rose to the challenge of 50 years ago. So much for the perennial
moans about “the children of today”. Maybe next time we can see how
well politicians meet the challenge of making the world a more
child-friendly place.

Yvonne Roberts is on holiday.

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