From top to bottom

31st October 1997 at 00:00
BACK TO THE FLOOR. BBC2 Tuesdays. 9.50-10.30pm. October 28-December 2.

This is not the first time that a television documentary series has been based on the idea of changing places (jobs, houses, etc), though in this series the moves involve sending a member of top management back to the bottom of the ladder, in most cases within a single organisation: the head of South West Water finds himself on the doorstep answering customer complaints; and the chief executive at a Bristol hospital becomes a nursing auxiliary.

In the opening programme, Terry Brown, director of the travel company, Unijet, sets off for Tenerife as a package tour rep. He arrives back after a week with bags under his eyes, some good ideas for reorganising the firm's work and a suggestion that his fellow managers should also do a stint at the sharp end.

The one exception is the second programme (to be broadcast next week). Gillian duCharme is headteacher at the leading girls' public school, Benenden, in Kent, and is despatched to a very different organisation - Forest Gate comprehensive in East London. For a week she teaches English and French in what is a genuinely mixed-ability school.

She is clearly unprepared for what she has to face at her first English lesson with Class 9T. Not that they are especially badly behaved - they simply don't act like Benenden girls. I suspect that some teachers will experience a warm surge of pleasure as they watch her struggle to gain control and get down to some work. For a moment, she seems to represent all those people who say "I blame the teachers", but have never known how it feels to confront a group of 30 disaffected 13-year-olds on a Monday morning and plead with them to share your enthusiasm for English comprehension or French conversation. Some of the Forest Gate pupils prove very perceptive and won't stand for being patronised. "That's it, 9T," you may find yourself muttering, "You show her!" Of course, this is a little unfair. For a start, Gillian duCharme admits that she has not been an unqualified success, without trying to blame her failure on anyone else. She argues the case against mixed-ability teaching in terms of its effect on the most able pupils, not its effect on class discipline. She is prepared to listen as 9T's usual English teacher criticises her for failing to lay down the rules and points out that one can't motivate these pupils with promises of extrinsic rewards. They know that passing exams will not ultimately lead to a satisfying job. So, surprisingly, it is here rather than at Benenden that pupils must be taught to love learning for its own sake.

In the end, most teachers will feel more sympathy than Schadenfreude, recalling the first time that they had to tackle an unresponsive class. There is no simple answer to the problem. Gillian duCharme argues that the state sector needs more money, and questions the management style of the Forest Gate head - but all that is marginal. The lesson of the programme may be that there is no single definition of a "good teacher", because where you teach can be more important than how.

In any event, running a school is not like running a water company or a travel firm, and you can't change its performance by altering things at the top.

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