How Starkey got narky over discipline

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Tough-talking historian tells TES why discipline is all-important

Teachers faced with a classroom of unruly pupils are forced to act like "a lion tamer dealing with savage beasts", according to TV historian and author David Starkey.

The celebrity academic starred this week in the first episode of Jamie's Dream School, the latest television project by Jamie Oliver, which aims to get troubled young people back into education.

Dr Starkey joined other big names ranging from Rolf Harris to Alastair Campbell to re-engage a group of teenagers who had failed to get five good GCSEs.

Dr Starkey told The TES that his time on the programme was, overall, a positive one, but he claimed a lack of discipline meant that even the very best teachers would have failed to get through.

"What struck me was that you spent hardly any time teaching the subject," Dr Starkey said. "You are like a lion tamer dealing with savage beasts.

"The saddest thing is that you totally fail to get through. One girl said she loved history but said this was just like every other class she'd had. These children are destroyed by this process and it is because of this forced liberalism - it is unkind to students and to teachers."

Dr Starkey, who makes a point of the lack of discipline throughout the programme - and even refuses to teach at one point - said a school is unable to succeed without the right structure.

"Nobody paid any attention to discipline (in the programme). The TV crew were more worried about the design of the sofas. It is why I threw a great tizz after the first class. The idea was if you get a group of wonderful teachers then the kids will respond and do wonderful things. This is not possible without the right structure and ethos in the school," the historian said.

"It is what (Mossbourne Academy head) Sir Michael Wilshaw says and is clear in the evidence of the best of the academies and the major independent schools. Clearly they get rid of the bad teachers, but overall they create a structure. There is an assumption that the children will listen to the teacher."

And Dr Starkey said it was ultimately the children who lose the most. "The whole thing is a tragedy," he said. "There was no one there who had an IQ lower than 100, and there were some that had ones much higher. Their problem was that no one had ever made them pay attention."

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"You're all here, I'm told, because you've failed."

This, historian David Starkey believes, is the way to engage underachieving teenagers.

It is not entirely clear what Jamie Oliver and Channel 4 are hoping to achieve with this show. In some professions, the best practitioners are often also the best known. But this is not necessarily the case in, say, history.

Starkey is described in the publicity material as "arguably Britain's leading presenter of history on TV". Possibly this translates as "able to convey history to the uninterested masses".

Starkey, however, appears not to have read the publicity material. "You're so fat, you can barely move," he tells 17-year-old Cono to the horror of head John D'Abbro, the sole qualified member of staff.

But all of this takes second place to the glorious diva-ness of Starkey. "There has to be the ethos. And, finally, there have to be sanctions," he says.

He is demanding discipline; Mr D'Abbro is demanding that Starkey be disciplined.

At this point, the pupils seem something of an irrelevance.

  • Original headline: Jamie's celeb lion tamer takes on `savage beasts'

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