The final episode of Channel 4's The Unteachables gave students an opportunity to work with people younger than themselves. Last year we tried a similar approach with 11 disengaged and disruptive Year 8 and Year 9 students, giving them a chance to pass on their skills in art, food technology, dance, drama and music to a younger year group.
Although our students had some confidence in the content of their lessons, they were still anxious about "being a teacher". Their main worry was whether the groups they taught would give them a rough time - as they did their teachers. And they had good reason to be concerned. One of the Year 7s they were to teach said beforehand: "Some of us are naughty for teachers. But if we're naughty for a teacher, what will it be like if we have another student teaching us? We're not exactly just going to sit in our seats and do what we're told. We're going to be all over the place messing things up."
The students were interviewed after their teaching, as were the groups they taught, and other teachers were asked to comment on any observed changes in their behaviour and commitment to learning. The students' responses were moving and inspirational.
Lauren was one of the 11. She had joined her inner-city school a year before with above-average grades, but had become increasingly argumentative and confrontational and her academic profile had declined in all subjects.
She was constantly in trouble - "The problem with me is if a teacher shouts at me I don't shut up and listen, I argue back" - and had been on report for almost a year.
Lauren's mum had taught her to cook and food technology was the only subject she liked. She taught a triple lesson to a group of Year 7s, with a lunch break between the second and third sessions, and she was nervous in case some of them didn't turn up after the break. But they did, and the lesson went well.
In the debriefing, Lauren said that she could now see things from the teacher's perspective and she vowed "not to be horrible to teachers because I learned that it's intimidating for them to get up in front of a group of people, especially if there's only one of you and there's more of them".
She added: "I've started to appreciate the teachers. Some of them have the patience of a saint!"
Lauren was pleased with what she had achieved. Teachers started to see a new side to her: "Totally different student. She is friendly and co-operative nearly all the time. Not so quick to fly off the handle." She even gave a card to her form tutor: "Thanks, Miss. Other teachers would not have given me this opportunity because of my reputation." Lauren explained what the experience had meant for her: "It makes you feel good. It makes you feel like you've gave something to someone, besides like proudness and that." We weren't expecting miracles - and Lauren did get involved again in a couple of high-profile fights -but she had had an experience of success and recognition.
Far from being "unteachable", these young people cared about doing something well in school, provided their teachers were prepared to believe that they could be different. A dispiriting comment came from one of the boys whose teaching session had also gone well: "I feel I want to help my teachers more. I have tried to impress them but they haven't noticed I'm different." What the project taught us was that with ongoing support, such children can shine, but without it they will quickly revert to their old identities. Good advice came from one of the other boys involved in the project: "It's bad to grow up with criticism - some do, but some grow up with encouragement. Being criticised all the time makes you look stupid.
Being encouraged all the time makes you feel great."
Jean Rudduck is professor of education at the University of Cambridge. She writes on behalf of the other members of the project team, John Finney, Richard Hickman, Bill Nicholl and Morag Morrison. The stories of the 11 students are published in Rebuilding Engagement through the Arts, Cambridge: Pearson Publishing (see www.pearsonpublishing.co.uk)