Reality TV works practical magic

Michael Shaw

When a group of low-achieving teenagers were kitted out in tank tops and gingham dresses and sent to live as pupils at a 1960s secondary modern, disaster seemed to beckon.

The students on Channel 4's That'll Teach 'Em initially had difficulties adapting to the strict rules at the fictional Hope Green school. The girls railed that it was sexist to make them learn to cook and clean while some of the boys appeared terrified of touching the school's goats in rural science.

But teachers who took part in the reality television series say that next week's final episode will prove that the experiment was a success - and that it is not just the pupils' skills at chicken-plucking and changing tyres that have improved.

Jeanette Gibson, the school's fierce English teacher, was originally surprised at the ignorance of some of the pupils, who were all predicted Cs, Ds or lower grades at GCSE.

But she says they did surprisingly well in a 60s-style CSE English exam: two gained a grade one, then considered equivalent to an O-level pass; and three-quarters received grades above 4, which was the national average.

Headteacher Richard Fawcett said the pupils' enjoyment of vocational lessons such as woodwork, in which nearly all the boys gained certificates, had knock-on effects on other subjects.

The former president of the Secondary Heads Association said: "It raises important questions about whether there is too little emphasis on practical skills, and too much on the academic, in vocational courses today."

This view is shared by Francis Peacock, the history teacher, although he believes the programme may have slightly over-stated the case for old-fashioned vocational courses.

"Part of it was the novelty value - I'm not sure the pupils would have been so excited about bricklaying if they had done it for two or three years," he said.

Cornelia Welham, the school's typing mistress, said the highlight of her experience had been seeing one of her pupils reach 11 words a minute on an antique typewriter. Sarah, who is dyslexic, had broken down in tears during the first typing lesson.

As well as revealing the pupils' exam results, the final episode will show how the pupils performed in an IQ test and viewers will also see the girls rebelling against 60s sexism during a Girl Guides and Scouts camp.

'That'll Teach 'Em' is on Channel 4 on Tuesday at 9pm

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Michael Shaw

I'm the director of TES Pro and former deputy editor of the TES magazine. I joined the publication as a news reporter back in 2002, and have worked in a variety of journalistic roles including editing its comment and news pages. In 2013 I set up the app version of the magazine, TES Reader, and the free TES Jobs app Michael Shaw

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