That’ll Teach ‘Em – with notes

This post has been inspired by a question asked by AW in another thread, about television. Answering that question, I found myself looking at the significant amount of DVDs I have sitting on a shelf waiting until I retired so I could watch them.

Among other things, I have the third series of the British ‘documentary/reality show’ That’ll Teach ‘Em. Unfortunately this series never seemed to air in Australia and is not commercially available on DVD, so I’ve never seen series one and two which would be fascinating. But I have managed to get a copy of series three, which I’ve watched once, a couple of years ago, but don’t remember well. And I intend to watch it again.

For those who don’t know it, each series of That’ll Teach ‘Em took a group of modern British children, and put them into a reasonably authentic recreation of a school of the past to see how they would function (would they learn better and more, etc) in an old fashioned school environment as compared to a modern environment. Series 1, tried to recreate a grammar school, with high achieving children, Series 2, tried to recreate a secondary modern with average children, Series 3, again recreated a grammar school, but this time focused on the idea of educating boys and girls separately.

Obviously the recreations could not be entirely realistic – one thing that has been noted in the past is that they obviously couldn’t have corporal punishment under current British law. But they seem to have done a reasonably different job.

Anyway, I thought I’d watch the third series of That’ll Teach ‘Em and as I do so, make some notes from my perspective. My original idea a few minutes ago, was to look at the children’s behaviour, and record incidents of misbehaviour that I observe and – this is the bit that I might think might be interesting here – how I would punish them if I was these children’s teacher or Headmaster.

I’m going to assume that I would available to me all the standards methods available in the 1950s. I’m going to assume there are no limitations on me beyond those the law would have imposed (so, yes, the cane will be an option for girls and boys). I’m going to make my best judgements based on the behaviour and what we see of the children’s character and personality.

I think it should be interesting – first of all, to see if it shows any differences in behaviour patterns, between the boys and girls and secondly to see what emerges in terms of how I’d punish them.

From memory, some of the misbehaviour is partly connected to the fact that these are modern children in an environment that has very different expectations, so some of the offences would not have been possible in a 1950s school (ie, hiding a mobile phone that was meant to be handed in). So, it’s not going to be absolutely authentic, but I think it might be interesting.

I also think, seeing I am going to be taking notes anyway, that I may address other issues besides behaviour as they come up. If you want to read my notes on behaviour, discipline, and punishment, you’ll need to wade through them all.


I was impressed by the three series and changed my own views quite a bit as a consequence of my viewing.

Initially, I was not at all empathetic to the students but softened as things progressed.

I will be most interested to compare and contrast Dr D?s first and reconsidered opinions as he works through the episodes.


I too look forward to reading your observations, Dr Dominium. I remember seeing all three series of “That’ll Teach ‘Em” when they were aired on British TV a few years ago, though my memory of them is rather hazy now. There was of course no overt CP, as you’ve said, but there were various references to it–for example, I remember the voiceover narrator saying at one point that this form of behaviour in the 1950s would have brought about the cane for both boys and girls (I think it was to do with running out of bounds and leaving the school premises during a games lesson). For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the programmes was the way in which the pupils responded psychologically to the different codes of behaviour expected of them–i.e., once they had got accustomed to a certain kind of discipline, a particular way of doing things, they quite quickly came in most cases to take it for granted. Children, after all, are much more malleable than adults in this respect. I am sure this kind of education system also produced higher academic results, of the traditional kind that were valued particularly in the 1950s era. But in the UK, at any rate, educational values have shifted so much that mere academic ability in itself is now seen as a relatively minor part of the child’s overall education. Issues of sociability, the ability to work collaboratively and in teams, the development of self-confidence and so on are rated very highly now, whereas in the 1950s they were almost universally ignored. This isn’t just all to do with trendy educational theories–it’s also to do with different workplace practices, what employers tend now to value most (corporate banks, for example, prefer “positive” people with good social skills rather than people who can translate Latin texts correctly or even, in some cases, add up–these days calculators can do all that routine stuff for you). So, though “That’ll Teach ‘Em” was good theatre and entertaining reality TV, my own overall impression was that its comparison of today’s world with the educational systems of 50 years ago was like comparing apples and oranges. The two worlds are just too different for any meaningful conclusions to be drawn.


OK – here I begin with the first episode. This is fairly disjointed, because these are my notes, and they make most sense to me. But I will intersperse comments as I go, and I will specifically outline my likely disciplinary response (assuming all reasonable options were available to me) as disciplinary issues come up.

I apologise that it has taken a while to get to this. I have been trying to get used to the idea of retirement and have been doing things that have kept me offline.

Episode 1

Series will specifically look at the idea of teaching boys and girls separately.

The school is Charles Darwin Grammar. A Grammar School in the sense the term was used in the 1950s, with a science focus.

All 30 children attend co-ed schools and are taught in mixed groups.

School motto – “Solum supersunt fortissimi” – only the fittest survive. An excellent motto for the type of school, and one that expresses an old and rather unpopular idea in education.

Competition is the key.

Inside the classroom. Single sex classes.

Consequences of co-ed versus single sex approach – 1950s. Boys excelled in maths and sciences. Girls in arts and languages. Across the board, equal level of success.

These kids reflect the modern day reality in Britain – girls outperform boys by about 10% across the board.

Question – will a month of single sex teaching make a difference? Will boys catch up? Will girls widen the gap?

The six inch rule – no boy and girl are to go within six inches of each other.

Basic dormitory. Very basic furniture.

Girls – no jewellery. No makeup.

Dealing with carbolic soap. I honestly don’t see why this is an issue. Soap is soap.

First disciplinary issue (among the girls). Ashleigh Walters – tried to keep mascara.

So – how would I handle this one. Pretty much as it was handled in the episode. Made her go and wash it off. Children will try it on. They’ll test the limits. They used to. They still do. You can’t let it go too far, but you don’t have to jump up and down on every single case.

Boys haircuts – short back and sides. Some of the boys did have hair that would have been unacceptable at the time. Some had hair that should be considered unacceptable today in the opinion of most traditionalists, but most were pretty good, and none were truly extreme.

QUOTE: “At the moment, you are nothing more than boys. Part of our job at Charles Darwin is to turn you into young men.” – the old idea of educating boys. Still a good idea and some schools still do it. Others ignore what makes a good man in favour of other ideals.

Brennon Gunston – obnoxious? At first glance I would have said so. But I think that’s unfair. He merely has very poor verbal skills. Still a boy who acted like that in the 1950s, might well have been in severe trouble at this point, even though I don’t think he’s trying to be obnoxious, because no boy back then would have been that inept verbally unless he had serious issues.

Brennon Gunston, personal interview, – describes himself as lazy. Says he’s a C student who should be an A student. His gran has told him he won’t be able to handle it, but he thinks 1950s schooling can’t be ‘any worse’ than what they have at the moment.

School uniforms – honestly the kids make an odd amount of fuss about these in my opinion. Yes, they are traditional uniforms, but with the exception of the hats (and even that’s not a complete exception) there are kids wearing that style of uniform today. Would be interesting to know specifically what these kids normally wear to school (we do get to see inside one boys modern school later, and their uniform is relatively traditional).

In four weeks time, they will sit 1950s O-levels. Now teachers need to assess where they are at present. Three exams – Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

“Today most teenagers sit a combined Science GCSE.” Illustrates a real problem – science is specific. There’s a place for a generalised course, but not at the level where you are starting to be credentialed.

Teachers have selected ‘easy O-level questions.”

These children have been predicted as likely to get high grades in their GCSEs. They are considered high flyers.

Luxuries – deoderant, makeup, chocolate all banned. Shows children hiding the contraband. Including mobile phones.

First disciplinary issue among the boys. In the boys dorm, as housemaster enters, one boy (Philip Donald) has left a chocolate bar under his bed. The other boys find it funny – especially when he drops more as he is told to pick it up. He becomes the first boy to get detention.

How would I have handled it? Yes. Probably a detention, perhaps just a severe reprimand. Again, kids try it on. What surprises me though is that the boys treat it as a joke. What is it about these kids that they find misbehaviour funny?

Matron searches the girls dorm.

Remarks on girls underwear – jokes, but significant. Why are teenage girls – children – wearing sexy underwear? Why are they allowed to? What benefit do they get out of it. I understand parents can’t always control their children (they never could) but fundamentals of clothing are something that parents could exercise some control over. Are these parents just not controlling their kids at all – or is it a matter of not fighting this particular battle. In the long run, not a huge issue by itself. Is it worth wasting effort on? Or do you reserve your authority for the big threats?

Second disciplinary issue among the girls. Matron decides to test girls honesty and focuses on a girl who she knows has contraband – Vicki Buxton. Singles her out and expressly asks if she has anything.

I think this is a bit unfair personally – you’ve caught the child in an act of misbehaviour. Why put them in a situation where they might feel forced to lie to you. Simply tell them, you’ve caught them.

Girls laugh as she is caught. She laughs too, but is obviously getting quite upset. Again, why are children laughing at another in trouble. Are these children really so used to getting away with things, that there is novelty value in being caught, and seeing somebody punished.

There’s a good response from her “I’ll take the blame for everything, Miss.” But pleads. “I get really weak without chocolate.”

So how would I handle this? Detention or reprimand. Same things apply as in the case of Philip Donald above. She might get some degree of leniency because she accepted responsibility fairly readily.

Children are awoken at 6am. Boys were kept awake by William Ho’s snoring.

Second disciplinary issue among the boys (apparently undetected by staff). Philip Donald and Sebastian Jefford dropped toothpaste on Ho in the night. He wakes up covered in his hair.

How would I handle it? It’s bullying, so the two of them would be in trouble. Probably just a severe telling off, as I don’t think this was malicious, but that would depend on their response. First time I’d actually consider a caning. But if I thought that it was just poor judgement and they would not repeat it once they were made to understand how unacceptable it was, probably just a reprimand and warning.

Exam results – the girls: QUOTE: “Frankly, the results are a complete and utter disgrace. I almost gave up the will to live as I marked these papers.” Girls laugh at this. Rather unfair, I think – it isn’t their fault that they haven’t been taught these things. No matter what problems there may be in modern schools, issues of curriculum are not the children’s fault.

A couple of marks are mentioned. 2/20, 0/20. I girl passed.

Mean teachers. QUOTE: “You’re an idiot. A numbskull. A fool. And that will have to change.” I have no fundamental problem with a teacher addressing students in this way, in certain circumstances, but in this case, I think it’s unnecessary and unfair. These children are reportedly good students by modern standards – the fault is no in them, but in what and how they have been taught.

A particular issue – Vicki Buxton. Predicted to get an A* in GCSE science. Made a meal of the question on human digestion.

On a diagram of digestion, used the label ‘food pipe’. A baby word – and, yes, at her level, she should be using the correct terms. However, when the teacher asks her to give him the proper name, she comes up with trachea – which is wrong, but I think he is overly harsh in the way he treats that answer. Obviously, she did not know the correct answer (esophagus) or she would have used it. Being able to bring up ‘trachea’ in the circumstances, honestly isn’t a bad answer – it’s wrong, but it’s close enough on the right track that I certainly wouldn’t berate a student for the answer in the way he does. There’s a time to be harsh – for really stupid answers. This one is wrong, but it’s not stupid.

The girls have done badly, but the boys have done worse.

Sample marks. 1/20, 0/20.

In the 1950s boys excelled in science. Outperformed girls by 10%. Now they fall behind.

What has changed?

Students used to learn facts, and it was based around practical experiments.

Today, lessons are far more theoretical.

The boys teacher, in my view, does a better job handling his class than the girls. Yes, he points out that their attention span is appalling, but he also points out that they are going to fix it through training. It isn’t the kid’s fault they are in the situation they are in – it’s their modern schooling, which they don’t control.

First biology lesson – maggots and meat.

Boys handle maggots fairly readily. Even quite gung ho about it.

In the girls class. Girls react very badly to the maggots. Not one of them will handle them. These are children raised in the modern educational co-ed environment – so why do the boys react so differently from the girls.

Two basic possibilities for consideration – ONE – there actually are real, fundamental differences between boys and girls or TWO – modern co-educational ideas, rather than reducing gender differences, actually increases and enhances them and makes children more likely to react in a gender stereotypical way.

In my view, and according to virtually all the evidence, both are true.

Dinner time – Boys devour 1950s food – girls have lost their appetite.

Diary room – girls complaining about maggots. Boys are ecstatic at the idea of real hands on science.

Music lesson – boys find it very hard to engage:

The school song – typical enough, perhaps laying it on a bit thick. Oh sorry – it’s a school song. 99% of them lay it on too thick.

“As we strive to be the best
We must fight to beat the rest.
And we know the journey is a long one
When only the strong ones
Can ever take the prize
And so let us dedicate our lives
To the brave men who survive.
And may God be
Always there beside thee.
Solum supersunt fortissimi.”

Third disciplinary issue with the boys. One boy (did not get his name, will have to try again later) is absolutely insolent during the lesson. Tone, attitude, words, obviously trying to cause disruption. He is told he will be kept in at lunchtime.

How would I handle this one? He’d get caned. Three strokes. There’s no excuse for the behaviour. It’s out and out insolence. He might if he was very lucky have been given an explicit warning at the first sign of trouble – maybe. And if he pulled his head in, all right.

Girls much more engaged in singing

QUOTE: “The girls easily outclass the boys. But more noticeable is their good behaviour. Critics of co-education notice that girls thrive in single sex classes without the distraction of boys boisterous antics.”

Third disciplinary issue with the girls. But there’s an exception. A girl (Vicki Buxton, again) wolf whistles. Teacher gets angry. He yells and reprimands her, and sends her from the room.

The Headmaster sees her, and questions her. She admits what she did – almost “I whistled.” Good enough, it’s not a lie, and I won’t blame a student for attempting to put the best face on what they did. Head says he will check it out – but she faces a detention and is made to stand facing the wall.

How would I have handled this? Well, first of all, I must say I think Buxton was treated a little unfairly – it’s the same music teacher as the boys just had and while her behaviour was unacceptable, it wasn’t as bad as the boy’s had been in their music class. And she seems to have been treated more harshly in my view. Detention at most, possibly just a reprimand.

Physics lesson – girls are astronomically ignorant (“24 hours” in answer to the question as to how long it takes the earth to go around the sun – cannot name the planets in order.)

Then they talk about William Ho. He mentions that his family owns a Chinese restaurant and his mother describes him as fat.

Again, I think they are being somewhat unfair here. I look at Ho, and yes, he is a little heavier than is ideal, but he’s not what I would call fat. Somewhere along the line, schools have got obsessed with weight – and I understand why, because there is an unacceptably high number of students who truly are overweight, obese, even to the extent of morbid obesity and that is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. But children who are just slightly overweight wind up being lumped into the same category. Ho seems fit enough – we’re shown him exercising and while his stamina could be better, he does well enough while doing it. They shouldn’t be worrying too much.

However, he seems to have become the butt of the other boys jokes – and they don’t think it’s effecting him. “He laughs with us.”

Then we see him outside the room. In tears. And QUOTE: “Miss Gibson steps in, with all the sympathy a 1950s school mistress can muster.”

The show is giving the impression that she is being too harsh with him – and that points to the real problem in my opinion. She’s not. In my view, she handles it exactly right. Yes, he’s a distressed young man, and he does need some degree of sympathy, but so often nowadays we go overboard.

She establishes why he is crying. She acknowledges his reasons (and that is important, and it’s something we often didn’t do as well as we should in the past) but then she points out that he can handle it. That this is something he can deal with. She praises what he is dealing with successfully and his determination to get through it. And then gives him time to pull himself together. That’s exactly how to handle this. Spot on.

(Yes, sometimes, more is needed – which is why the first step is always to establish why the child is in distress, and it’s also important to determine whether they have appropriate strategies for dealing with it. But in this case, it was right.)

Cross to Brennon Gunston. He has decided he wants to go home, and we listen to his reasons. The loss of his hair has greatly affected him. There’s no music. He can’t go out for a smoke! There’s not enough food. He is summoned to see Matron.

She gives him a letter from his mother, and he just becomes even more distressed. This is a case where a boy does need more and Matron tries to give it to him. But he’s not interested. He just wants to quit. And, unfortunately, the nature of the experiment means he can (unfortunately, because he would have come around, I think – and the hair isn’t just going to miraculously reappear).

The other boys come around, and start to help Ho. Very good. Most kids are fundamentally decent. If you give them the chance. If you make them.

Vicki has to see the Headmaster because of her behaviour. He makes her sing the school song. She does a good job and he applauds.

Why did he do that? I think it’s an excellent approach. It gives him a reason to give her some praise. I’m a big believer in punishment when needed. But I also believe in positive discipline and good schools and good teachers have always used it. But the problem with the way it is done today, in many cases, is it involves kids being given positive reinforcement for no reason. You have to have a reason for it. You have to give the misbehaving child a reason to be praised.

Vicki pushes it – asks to have a detention cancelled (she seems to have a few). The Headmaster says he will consider it. Silly girl shouldn’t have pushed. It makes it harder to be lenient. It has to be an act of grace, not something it looks like they manipulated you into.

Fourth disciplinary issue among the boys. Luke Mills has a hidden mobile phone. The Housemaster searches the dorm and finds it, along with a lot of other contraband. Mills lies and claims he didn’t know the phone was there. That he’d been looking for it.

They cut to an interview with Mills where he confidentally states he’s the smartest person in his school. His (regular) Headmaster is interviewed and calls him a ‘typical Liverpool lad with an attitude and an answer for everything.’ He himself says he has the gift of the gab and should be able to talk himself out of trouble.

It doesn’t work here. He’s in serious trouble, Has to see the Head later. I’ll come back to it then.

Debating. Public speaking and debating.

Boys versus girls.

Boys have a nice democratic approach to choosing their debaters. They nominate and vote. The girls however squabble and yell until a teacher finally has to intervene.

This, I must be honest, surprised me. Boys are not generally able to handle these things better than girls. I’d expect an equal level of squabbling from both groups, really, but if there was a difference, I’d expect the girls to handle it better. So why not in this case?

Went back to look again – I suspect the Master-In-Charge of the boys took charge right at the start and directed proceedings, probably because he assumed the boys needed that guidance. The Mistress-In-Charge of the girls tried to leave it up to the girls, and they couldn’t handle it. I suspect if they’d taken the opposite approach, we’d have seen an opposite result in this case.

The balloon debate – two boys and two girls. A hot air balloon with four famous people in it is fallen, and the debate decides who survives. Each student is the advocate for one of the famous people and has to make their case. And the other students vote.

Even before watching it, even before knowing who the people are, I’ll make a prediction – one of the people championed by the boys will survive. Why? Because in such a debate, boys will overwhelmingly show complete solidarity by supporting a boy over a girl, while girls are slightly more likely to actually listen to the arguments – and when you have 14 boys and 14 girls voting (note – this part seems to be out of order, Gunston is still present), if all the boys vote as a block, it only takes one girl ‘switching sides’ to win.

(In debates, where the consequences matter, this is less clear cut – in those cases children do tend to listen more to the arguments but this is just a bit of fun and so they are likely to divide as described).

Girls have Shakespeare and Mozart.
Boys have Einstein and Freud

The winner – Freud. He survives by 16 votes to 12.

As for my prediction. Now – diary room – talking into the camera. Was does the girl (Ashleigh Walters) who was championing Shakespeare say:

QUOTE: “I didn’t win, and the only reason I didn’t win is because two of the girls decided they weren’t going to vote for me, oh no, they were going to vote for whoever they wanted to, and they voted for the boys.”

Wow – boys voted as a solid group. Girls didn’t. I wonder how I predicted that?  Could it be, that decades of experience and a lot of study have actually made me a bit of an expert in these things? 

Luke in the diary room actually talks about how the boys have formed one coherent group – while the girls have split into five or six factions (there’s only 14 of them!)

Fourth disciplinary incident among the boys (continues). And now Luke is off to see the Headmaster.

He gets yelled at and lectured and told quite clearly that the Head knows he is lying. And he is given one last chance to tell the truth. Note the contrast with Matron’s actions earlier – he is being set up so the best option is to tell the truth, there’s no possible gain in lying.

And he does tell the truth. And is instantly cut off before he can lie again. Once again, you have to create a situation where the child can do the right thing, can start digging themselves out of the hole they are in. And then you keep them out of that hole.

He gets two hours detention – and a pretty nasty detention (copy out in English and Latin, the Venerable Bede) and he has to go to bed at 8pm.

How would I handled it? I might have caned him – and would have if he’d lied. But he told the truth, so detention and an early bedtime does seems reasonable.

Fifth disciplinary incident among the boys. At 10pm, Mills (who was supposed to be in bed at 8pm) is caught by the Headmaster still fully dressed, doing a pretty spot on impersonation of the Headmaster. This is actually the first time in the episode, I actually see a child who looks genuinely chastened and worried. The normal expression I’d expect to see.

As the Headmaster leaves. “Oh, I’m screwed.”

How would I handle this? A caning. Definitely. Very possibly six of the best. This is deliberate defiance of instructions and evasion of a punishment. And his expression shows that he knows it.

Next episode when I watch it.