Can today’s pupils cope with old-school values?

A television experiment has recreated a state boarding establishment to put 1950s educational standards to the test. Cassandra Jardine reports

On Monday, 30 pupils and nine teachers went back to school as it was in the 1950s. Installed at a state boarding establishment, they are spending four weeks in a world of discipline and academic endeavour.

The 16-year-olds are now approaching the end of their first week in eerily quiet classrooms where they sit at old-fashioned desks with flap-top lids and inkwells. A matron inspects ears for dirt and beds for hospital corners, and a fearsome headmaster is ready to discipline anyone who uses bad language.

By now, the pupils will probably be used to the television cameras that are following them around as well as eagerly making video diaries about the horrors of stodgy food, writing lines, taking cold dips and multiplying in old money.

They have been sequestered for a Channel 4 experiment – called That’ll Teach ‘Em – which, among other things, will try to establish whether academic standards have fallen during the past 50 years.

So, fresh from taking their GCSEs, the pupils will be prepared for O-levels in English, history and maths. The English set texts will be Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and Romeo and Juliet. Maths will require complicated mental arithmetic, history will focus on the British Empire.

They will learn other subjects, too, but not in the way they are taught now. French involves learning the pluperfect rather than ordering a baguette, and in science they are dissecting a rat.

Whatever ammunition this provides to the debates about dumbing down or standards of behaviour, the fascination will lie in the pupils’ reactions to the good old/bad old days when the cane was an ever-present threat and half a mark was taken off exam papers for each spelling mistake.

Will the girls like being given deportment lessons and told that teaching, nursing or secretarial work is the limit of their career prospects? How will boys take the news that self-abuse is damaging?

The series producer, Simon Rockell, has devised ways to distress the pupils. His production office is full of instruments of torture. Piles of Ridout’s English Today sit next to maths textbooks. He has assembled gowns, hard lavatory paper, Spam fritters, slide rules, thick uniforms, Army beds and books of Psalms.

“The maths looks impossible, and I think they’ll find it hard having to learn great chunks of text for the English paper,” says Rockell, who taught history for nine years before switching to a career in television.

“But we aren’t stopping there. We are recreating the whole school world – the religion, the games, the food.” No effort has been spared to make the atmosphere authentic.

But there will be no return to corporal punishment – much to the regret of Andrew McTavish, who was a pupil at the school in the no-carpet, no-curtains 1950s, and is now back there as headmaster.

He remembers fondly the day when the entire school – all 850 boys – was given two strokes of the cane after a snowball broke a window. “We didn’t mind. When, at assembly, the headmaster referred to the ‘exercise’ he had had, a great cheer went up. But, don’t worry, there will be plenty of fear.”

The transformation of the school – which is not being named until transmission – serves as a reminder of how much education has changed over half a century. Rockell dates the shift from the launch of Sputnik in l957.

In his view, this sent a tremor of fear through the educational establishment: if Russia was producing such amazing technology, the time had come to open up the system in which the 80 per cent of the population who failed the 11-plus was not allowed to take public exams.

In came the comprehensive ideal and a child-centred, socially-inclusive philosophy. Teachers became part-time social workers, power was handed over to the pupils and out went Christian-only assemblies, demeaning punishments, O-levels and, some say, educational standards.

Rather unfortunately, Rockell’s own written proposal for the series says: “There is no doubt that standards in the use of English has [sic] fallen.”

To make a valid comparison between then and now, the producers chose pupils who were predicted to get As and Bs in their GCSEs. That puts them in the top 30 per cent of their age group, roughly comparable with a grammar school’s intake. Socially, however, they will be far more diverse than their counterparts 50 years ago.

The children are unlikely to take to the regime, says Rockell, who is also working as the history master. They are too used to making their own decisions, following their personal enthusiasms, voicing opinions and behaving pretty much as they choose, he says.

“I told them to take the worst scenario and double it. This will be tough love, and they will have to look after themselves – though there will be a vicar.” Rockell, 40, who was educated at Lancing and has taught in both private and comprehensive schools, believes that education today is more “enlightened”.

“Kids today are better equipped for more independent work. They aren’t spoon-fed, as I was, and they can assess information rather than store it. GCSEs do not stretch the top five to 10 per cent, but the pay-off is that education is more democratic.”

Anyway, he says, “do we have to be so rigid about grammar now that we have texting and emailing?” Yet, in some ways, he is a traditionalist who prefers to employ “people with good solid degrees in English and history from good solid universities”, and expects to send his daughter to a private secondary school.

Mr McTavish, by contrast, is “a suitable dinosaur” for the project. Recent educational trends are “misguided”, he says. The 39 years he has spent teaching and running grammar schools have convinced him that the old system “brings out the best in all pupils”.

He likes didactic teaching, quiet in the classroom and history taught by dates rather than topics. “I have never had any discipline problems in my schools,” he says. “Sarcasm was the very oil of most classrooms – it was like a physical flick around the ear. It didn’t do any harm and I think it is going to come back.”

Rockell is eager to find out how this generation takes to dictation and learning by heart. “Will they say they are being more stretched in maths? Will they like the history of great men and great events, or will they say they are bored?” Whatever they think, they will not be encouraged to express it in class.

 That’ll Teach ‘Em begins on Aug 5 on Channel 4 and will run for five weeks


Corpun file 11676


Daily Telegraph, London, 27 July 2003

It won’t be the old school without the agony

By Kevin Myers

The next stage in “reality” television starts tomorrow on Channel Four. That’ll Teach ‘Em will put 30 16-year-old pupils and nine teachers into a “1950s” boarding school for a month. The programme’s producer, Simon Rockell, said: “We are creating the whole school world – the religion, the games, the food.”

Well, “the whole school world” is precisely what the programme won’t be creating, because vital to that world, and without which all the rules and the regulations are quite meaningless, is the teenage culture of that time. To impose rules from over 40 years ago on young minds today is as useful as trying to feed hay to cars. I should know: I caught the last days of the old English public school.

The fons et origo of authority in that system – corporal punishment – will be absent from the series in spite of cane-flexing publicity photographs. This is Hamlet without Prince, Ophelia and Queen Gertrude. For corporal punishment was not only the ultimate sanction in the school: it was also the deciding arbiter of school culture. Boys expected to be beaten, and how one took one’s beating was a measure of one’s manhood. We certainly didn’t think it unfair: quite the reverse. That was the system – arbitrary, incomprehensible, illogical – and fairness had nothing to do with it.

I was beaten only three times – once for reading Biggles in first year Latin class, once for cheekiness, and once for pillow-fighting, and frankly, I would have been ashamed to have left school without having been caned. It was, however, quite astoundingly painful. The only comparable agony in adulthood came when I fell on rocks and broke three ribs.

Corporal punishment not merely established a hierarchy of manhood; it also opened a window into the world of serial abuse, the existence of which all of us at least suspected; and some had experienced. At the prep school to my boarding school, boys were routinely beaten till they bled. One master used to hold boys by their jaws at a single arm’s length from the top of the Victorian bell-tower, and boys in my dormitory would wake up screaming in terror at the memory.

With every lash of the cane, we were reminded of the possible existence of a world of totalitarian brutality which could spring into existence with little provocation. And privately, we were all resolved to endure whatever terror and violence came our way in uncomplaining silence. Our determination to keep our home lives and our school lives apart was total. We would have endured just about any privation or abuse rather then undergo parental intrusion or complaint into our school-world. So victims always protected the abuser: that was part of the perverse contract of our times.

That’ll Teach ‘Em cannot possibly comprehend such aspects of public school life. Instead, it is introducing the anachronistic concept of co-education. This is fatuous. The absence of girls was as much a defining a feature of the culture of English public school as the threat and the reality of institutional violence. Trying to capture that essence with girls and without flogging on “reality” television is like making a series of programmes about apartheid, except with universal suffrage and no townships.

Instead of dealing with the contemporary realities, the programme seems set to deal with current obsessions and prevalent myths, sex being the most obvious. Cassandra Jardine writing of the series in The Telegraph last Friday gave an inadvertent clue. She wondered how the boys (but not the girls) would take to the news that what she quaintly called self-abuse was damaging. This merely reflects the current media obsession with male masturbation, rather than female. If That’ll Teach ‘Em were to go back another 50 or so years, would a programme maker of 2003 dare to brave modern feminist wrath by relaying Mary Wood-Allen’s solemn and public warnings (in What A Young Girl Should Know, 1905) of the dangers of “the solitary vice”, which caused girls to eat mustard, vinegar, clay, salt, chalk and charcoal?

Other days, other ways: so when we hear the producer talking American, and referring to the “tough love” of his imagined public school of the past, we should worry. Public school was without “love”: it was a power structure, in which violence, obedience and rote-learning became second nature, all of which could none the less result in blinding discoveries. Once one had grasped the beauty of grammar, language opened up like a vast bejewelled warehouse: few discoveries in my entire life equal the revelations which were liberated by that precious key.

That key was not cut in a month: nor can modern, free-ranging minds even begin to resemble minds shaped by remorseless daily routine of endless fact-acquisition and the parallel threat of serious pain. You can put today’s hotel swipe-card into an old mortice lock, and pretend the door will open, but you know it won’t. Only the most vapid televisual conceit of 2003 could propose otherwise. The past, you see, was inhabited by Martians; and today’s young earthlings imitate us in vain.