Barbaric fun on freaks TV

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Should we start a revolution? Shall we mess with Miss Beckles, slap Supernanny, and put a whoopee cushion on headmaster Warr's chair in That'll Teach 'Em? Shall we burn down Brat Camp and release the victims of The House of Tiny Tearaways? Shall we call a halt here?

Britain is overwhelmed with reality shows about education and child management . Why this is so is a conundrum we must leave to a psychiatrist or an anthropologist studying the ambivalent feelings of "power mums" in the media.

In most of these programmes, the children are cast as freak-show exhibits, baroque nightmares who spend their lives stropping, weeping and flouncing out, and then gratify us by being sent to the naughty step or humiliated and forced to sing the school song in an ersatz 1950s headmaster's office.

One day, a more civilized world will look back with the amazement we now reserve for little boys sent up chimneys, or 13-year-old girls enlisted to carry coal upstairs at 5am in the great house.

"Horrifying!" they will say in the media studies class of 2050, as the clunky old DVD whirrs to a halt in the teacher's vintage player. "You mean that poor boy Luke was thrown out of his home by his mother, with the television cameras recording every tremor of his lip? And then they followed him down the road and filmed him being hugged for comfort by someone else's mother?

"And are you telling me that all those unlovely toddler tantrums were recorded and exposed for entertainment to a viewing public at a time when the child concerned wasn't even old enough to trace its own name on a consent form?

"And when that teacher was shouting at the teenager and calling him an imbecile, are you saying the event was considered 'reality' yet wasn't considered in any way private? How barbaric! "

As it happens, I shamefacedly watch these programmes - especially That'll Teach 'Em", which makes some powerful and unsettling points about the changes in what we expect children to learn and how we expect them to learn it. I think Simon Warr, who taught my own children, is an inspired choice as head, being just loopy enough to give an edge of danger to the show while retaining a degree of mischief.

Watch him closely. He often wants to laugh. As to the newest show, Don't Mess with Miss Beckles, I rather liked Yo Beckles when I met her in person, though I can't go all the way with her doughty Caribbean faith that nothing matters in your teen years except exam results, and that it is a parent's job to hover over you nightly and police your coursework file. She means well, and I suppose someone had to challenge the creed of liberal, trustful parenting if only so we could all rattle our hippie beads and disagree.

Yet there is something very creepy about TV filling our evenings with the sight of other people's lairy children fouling up their lives and relationships. Those people sobbing and ranting and giving farouche sidelong glances beneath floppy hairdos are in our care. They are not like the self-appointed exhibitionists on Big Brother, or the amusingly arrogant business-school graduates on The Apprentice. They are kids, sometimes very young ones. And hand on heart, I have to say I think it is wrong.

I don't care that it's legal, or how many disclaimers the poor saps of parents are persuaded to sign. It's wrong, distasteful, borderline sinister. Do you think everyone watching those shows is doing it in a helpful, kindly, comradely spirit? Or do you reckon a fair number are just sitting there cackling with schadenfreude at the vileness of other people's children?

"Ah," say the TV moguls, "but these shows are helpful. They instruct parents in strategies for coping with everything from toddler tantrums to GCSE refuseniks. They are socially useful."

Rats. You would get more insight into how to deal with children by letting them speak to the camera on their own terms, about their own lives. Or by commissioning some strong, wise drama (step forward Lucy Gannon or Kwame Kwei-Armah) in which imaginary people played by good young actors go through the same kind of miseries and confusion.

Comedy helps, too (we got through adolescence in our family by doing communal imitations of Harry Enfield's hyperventilating Kevin). Even soap operas help. Where babies and toddlers are concerned, you can reasonably interview the parents and "experts" and intersperse the odd long shot of a cross-looking tot.

All this could be done without the sacrifice of family privacy and the exploitation of genuine pain. But it would cost more. The bottom line is what leads us to the bottom of the barrel. And we're getting pretty damn close to it.

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