'Caps must be raised to ladies'

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Spam fritters anyone? Michael Shaw on the TV show that aims to test whether pupils would do better if we returned to the methods, rules and lunches of the Fifties

IT is a quiet afternoon in the staffroom and the teachers are sitting primly in their gowns, sipping from china teacups and flicking through O-level text books and copies of Picture Post.

Next to a map of the Empire, awash with pink countries, the classics master fiddles with a Gestetner copier.

Welcome to the King's school, a mock-up 1950s grammar school created by Channel 4 for a new reality television series.

More than 2,000 teenagers applied to be one of the 15 teenage boys and 15 girls on That'll Teach 'Em which will recreate the food, stern discipline and no-nonsense teaching methods of the Fifties.

The 16-year-olds are in their second week at the boarding school (motto Durando Discimus - "Through struggle we learn") where they have been studying on wooden desks and sleeping on iron-frame beds.

At the end of the month-long series they will sit half an O-level in English, maths and history. Their results will be revealed at the same time as their GCSE grades.

The show is likely to give ammunition to those who argue that standards have slipped. Staff at the school said they expected pupils would have difficulty understanding some O-level questions, let alone answering them.

But producer Simon Rockwell, who has also stepped in as the show's history teacher, denied the teenagers were being set up to fail.

He stressed that lengthy discussions were held with examiners from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance on what could realistically be taught. "The pupils would feel cheated if it wasn't tough," he said.

Hundreds of teachers applied to take part in the series after seeing advertisements in The TES. Eight were selected for their ability to teach in the traditional "chalk-and-talk" style.

Liz Pidoux, who teaches at the fee-paying King's school, Canterbury, was picked to be an English teacher and girls' housemistress.

She said she found the lack of a photocopier frustrating but liked pupils referring to her as "ma'am".

She explained how both teachers and pupils had changed: "The pupils are getting the taste of a more passive experience in lessons. They are expected to take notes rather than have a conversation with the teacher, which has come as a shock.

"Usually I rely quite heavily on humour and facetiousness in my teaching but here I have to be more of a stony-faced matron."

Dr Pidoux, 50, said the teenagers had been bursting with self-confidence when they arrived and that some had shouted back at staff. "The amazing transition came when they put on their uniforms and the girls had their hair plaited and make-up taken away," she said.

"They lost their sense of teenage individuality and became children. They have adapted remarkably well. I went into the common room today and saw the boys playing with a Hornby train set."

The TES was given an exclusive tour of the programme's set, and "treated" to a lunch of spam fritters and tapioca, shortly before pupils first arrived. Production staff said pupils were picked because they seemed interested in the experiment rather than just keen to appear on television.

Clare Derry, 16, from Wales said she applied because she was "one of the few children in the country who likes getting up early, taking cold baths and eating boiled cabbage".

Nearly all the pupils were in the top 20 per cent of GCSE entrants, to reflect the proportion who took public exams in the Fifties. When not in lessons, they are kept busy with sport, a debating society, and rehearsals for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as well as cadet force training for the boys and sewing for the girls.

Andrew McTavish, the head was a pupil from 1948 to 1956 at the Home Counties school where the series is filmed (but which governors have requested is not identified). He recently retired after 39 years managing and teaching in grammar schools and said he was disappointed staff could not use the cane for legal reasons.

However, teachers have a range of other punishments at their disposal including early-morning runs, swims in the school's unheated pool, lines in Latin, and a curious sanction (as yet untested) where students hold out a bible until their arms ache.

That'll Teach 'Em starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on August 5


Every aspect of the pupils' life is governed by a series of rules inspired by those found in 1950s rulebooks. These include:

* Silence is expected from the prayer bell until the pupils have returned to their forms and been given permission to talk.

* Pupils are required to raise their caps and hats in the proper manner when they meet masters, visitors and ladies on school premises.

* The salt and pepper pots, at mealtimes, must not be passed from hand to hand.

* Girls and boys must be no closer than six inches unless directed by a member of staff.

* Girls' hair is to be tied back at all times.

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