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Will that really teach ‘em?

[2nd May 2006: This article was posted on my original hand-written blog on 24th August 2004, as a consideration of the second series of Channel Four's "That'll Teach 'Em", which had just ended. It was deleted during a blog relaunch. It has been reposted on "The Hard Sell" after the end of the third series to provide reference material for a future blog post.

Please excuse my writing style; some egregious errors have been corrected, but others still stand.]

I’m currently watching the return of Channel Four’s “That’ll Teach Them” with a profound sense of horror, much like I did last time.

It worked quite well last year, showing modern ‘A*’ GCSE students being stuck in a 50′s grammar school and being faced with knowing what Pythagoras theorem is; there was a heavy undercurrent of localised contempt and sexism that showed exactly why the 50s school system sucked, since even though our kids (at least at GCSE) don’t know what a bearing is at least they’re actually taught to think independently…

Channel Four couldn’t copy the idea wholesale again, so have decided to show what it was like on the other side of the fence. It’s a 60s secondary modern this time round, and it again is a source of unmitigated horror for a modern, freedom-loving student liberal like me. In this case they’ve picked out ‘C’ GCSE students, but it is important to realise that the school league tables are A*-C. Currently they are showing a ned who wants to be high in ‘pimpology’ (bling and other bullshit); and yet I can tell there’s something intelligent in there, which is a fairly hefty indictment of the British education system.

Going back to the 60s – like some Tories, the UKIP and their fascist friends would rather like – would not have helped this much, and the show is currently proving that for me (not that having watched “Kes” any number of times – Billy Casper is being failed by a secondary modern – didn’t do that for me already.) The secondary modern system was designed specifically to group together a group of kids that had already failed, in many cases unfairly. The 11+ allocated pupils not by the type of mark they got, but a specific number of places to students in descending order. Therefore, if you were at a posh primary school with specific training for the 11+, there would be a lot of people failing with high grades; or at a godawful school with little well-done specific training, you could pass with a low grade.

It was designed, basically, to enable failed pupils to fail some more – no O-levels for you, sometimes not even a CSE. Comprehensive schooling may not have been a sure-fire success, but it at least allowed everyone to try and pass a real exam. What the show isn’t making clear is the extremely low esteem the CSE was held in – if you wanted to get anywhere in white collar work, you needed O-levels. The secondary moderns condemned good people to lives of drudgery.

Much like last year, it also brings out the sexism inherent in the system, which is a major part in my position against the return of selective education. (My mother was at an integrated private grammar during the late 60s, although admittedly she had parents committed to a proper education, and informs me that there was far less sexism inherent in the system then; the fact that she went to university and qualified as a doctor is proof of that.) This time it’s more obvious.

Whereas last time the sexism was mostly confined to girls being told how to be a ‘secretary’ and being warded away from more challenging choices, this time it’s ingrained right into the centre of the curriculum. Boys get car repair, girls get home econ. Boys get building, girls get knitting. Boys get football, girls learn how to be a good housewife. That sort of thing.

This is causing much conflict between the modern boys, who are rather impressed with it all, and the modern girls, who hate it. I don’t blame them; that somehow one is more responsible because they’re in possession of a penis is an attitude I find offensive, shallow and completely untrue. If vocational teaching is ever reintegrated into British schools, and it might well be useful to have, it had better be available to girls.

As for educational quality: I feel that the modern schooling system is less responsible for that than people think it is. English is not an easy (or obvious) language to spell phonetically, and just because a couple of the C-students failed to spell ‘remember’ (but did approximate it) doesn’t put the blame on computers and video games. Whoever wrote the narrator’s line about AutoCorrect deserves shooting, since AutoCorrect only works on a preselected, tiny number of common typos and is not intended as a spell checking system; I’ve been using computers to do homework for many years, and most of my spelling errors in computer work are unintentional typos caused by touch-typing on cruddy keyboards.

I do agree with the teacher that it is lack of reading that is causing the problems in spelling – I have always been a reader, which is part of why I had a very hard time at school – but I’d like to give a different reason. After all, you have to be able to read to use a computer, and especially a computer’s spell-checker; and the reason I admire J.K. Rowling so much is that Harry Potter is finally convincing kids in Britain to start reading decent literature (and the HP books, especially the last three, are decent), something which we’ve been needing for a long time.

It’s because of peer pressure, which is also the cause of bullying, teenage pregnancy (the UK has the highest rate in Europe, at twenty pregnancies per thousand teens; the Netherlands has seven) and ned culture. The UK has a strident anti-intellectual culture, copied from the United States (much like our sex education policy), and with your parents and ‘friends’ applauding stupidity, what are you going to do? Being intelligent is a crime in the modern school system, and people like the above ‘pimpologist’ have repressed their obvious intelligence in order to not be out of the ordinary, or like him out of the ordinary in a ‘cool’ way. Intelligence is never, ever, cool.

Advertising, mass media, teen (and non-teen) magazines, parents uneducated by their godawful secondary modern educations, the general public opinion; they all say “Don’t you want to be like everyone else?”. I refused to do that, so I got bullied for five whole years of hell until the neds dropped out of my year. And I was lucky, since the school did streaming and as such was able to filter out most of said neds from my classes.

One of my younger brothers is going through the same thing now; he was left unable to go to school for a week thanks to some fuckwit who decided that trying to strangle him was a good idea. They still haven’t caught the little fuck that did it; ‘nobody saw it’, apparently, despite it being in a crowded corridor, a definite indication that it was a Mr. Big that nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of. The fact that my old school’s administration sucks is nothing to do with the discipline available; my brother would have been picked on even if his many assailants were birched simultaneously. It is a peer pressure problem. And I’m not sure that having teacher-originated bullying of the less able in the class, like in the first series, is a good thing either…

[Of course, parts of that paragraph would have got me expelled (or at least severely chastised) from the school in "That'll Teach 'Em", but I feel swearing has a perfectly acceptable place in the English language for situations exactly like that one, which the teachers would have failed to realise.]

Sexism is still rampant in schools, and it’s the same sort of reason. There have been improvements: now, Scouting associations are integrated, Home Econ is now for both sexes, it is possible for girls to do football (most of the Premiership teams have a woman’s football adjunct) and boys to do dancing (Billy Elliot really helped there). Unfortunately, peer pressure strikes again: in my old school, it’s still advised that the boys do football and the girls do something else (netball, I think), and I’m sure that if I’d gone on what I really wanted to do I’d have been kicked the shit out of for being “gay” and vilified forever. Not that I wasn’t anyway, but… woe betide you if you actually are.

And the commentary just dropped a sarcastic remark, during a ‘party’ scene, about despite the lack of ‘alco-pops’ and cigarettes that the kids are having a good time, a piece of total condescension that makes me think, rather surprised: “Channel Four thinks this is better?”. Amazingly thought-provoking must-see TV, and for all the wrong reasons. Thanks, guys.


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