Don't mess with teenage autonomy

7th April 2006 at 01:00
Reality TV crosses the line when it offers up young people's dignity for the sake of ratings, writes Wendy Wallace

As a Fortismere school parent, I duly sat down to watch the first episode of Don't Mess with Miss Beckles, a programme based on Yolande Beckles'

attempts not just to lead Fortismere students to water, but to force their muzzles deep into the current (BBC2, Tuesdays 9pm).

Luke, a likeable, Botticelli-faced boy - involved in growing up, a band and loads of friendships - couldn't see the point of aiming for anything higher than Cs in his GCSEs. He winged it on coursework; his teachers said he was underachieving. This is a script too hackneyed to qualify as drama, but BBC2 had decided it would be a good extrapolation of the endless running TV soap "The Trouble with Kids" (see Brat Camp, Supernanny, etc). The "twist"

was that these were middle-class, supposedly advantaged, kids who just needed to party less.

I can't speak for other Fortismere parents in north London's Muswell Hill, but it did not come as news to me that middle-class teenagers can be difficult to motivate. The idea that either of my sons would have been put on the track to straight As by adult bullying, prominently displayed wall charts and the promise of a trip to an Arsenal match was comprehensively disproved in my own household long before they finished primary school. Yet these were apparently the limits of Miss Beckles' tools.

Half an hour in, after seeing tensions in Luke's home seemingly exacerbated by Miss Beckles' chameleon-like interventions (one minute taking the boy's side, then sitting at the feet of his stepfather, then ganging up with his mother) we watched a distressing episode in which Luke was refused admission to his own home unless he obeyed his mother's instruction to "hug me as if you mean it". A friend texted me. "What good is this serving?" I couldn't answer.

A few more questions that I cannot answer: What responsibility do schools have to their students in an age of reality TV?

Why do ratings count for more than young people's dignity, even with the BBC?

Who, once they are beyond the reach of the collective madness that is Year 11, thinks that GCSE grades matter more than teenagers' developing autonomy?

As John Purcell-Shackleton, a fellow Year 11 Fortismere student, commented:

"She (Miss Beckles) was quite egotistic about the whole thing and at the end of it she didn't seem to have achieved what she set out to do. Having your dirty laundry aired on national TV isn't really pleasant for anyone."

In Miss Beckles, the kids came out as likeable and generous-spirited while the adults looked at best foolish, at worst damaging. Blonde, bemused-seeming Tom - instructed to break up with his girlfriend - sensibly bowed out of the programme. Luke's family life disintegrated on camera, apparently just for the amusement of viewers, as Miss Beckles'

interventions have not, according to his mother, helped anything, least of all his grades.

Wendy Wallace is a journalist who writes for The TES's Friday magazine

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