TV show tackles the class from hell

9th September 2005 at 01:00
TES readers' favourite Ted Wragg joins Channel 4 team to try to reform the 'unteachables'. Michael Shaw reports

It sounds like the class from hell: 16 of England's most disruptive, foul-mouthed and apparently unteachable pupils. Yet highly-respected education figures are putting their reputations on the line as they try to transform these teenagers in a new television series.

The Unteachables, which begins on Channel 4 later this month, follows the teachers as they try out a mix of progressive teaching techniques and strict classroom discipline on the disaffected 13 and 14-year-olds.

The teenagers, who have had at least 56 exclusions between them, were chosen from four unnamed schools after visits to 50 secondaries across England.

The project was led by Ted Wragg, TES columnist and emeritus professor of education at Exeter university. He was accompanied by William Atkinson, head of the Phoenix school in Hammersmith, Vivian Hill, educational psychologist, and Phil Beadle, last year's secondary teacher of the year in the national teaching awards.

Professor Wragg, known for his progressive views on teaching, is driven to exasperation by the teenagers' behaviour in an early episode. "I like all the kids and love them but I could cheerfully take them behind a tree and ruin my career by smacking the hell out of them," he tells the camera.

The pupils took part in a weekend course, then spent a further three weeks at residential schools focusing on English, science and maths.

The education experts also worked with the pupils one-to-one back in their schools and arranged for their teachers to spend six days on "critical skills" courses designed to make their lessons more appealing.

Pupils taking part include 13-year-old Grace, who has been excluded four times for her volatile behaviour and is shown arriving late at school for her mock key stage three tests, then marching out of the exam hall after 10 minutes.

She informs one instructor: "You're shit and you can't teach to save your fucking life."

The opening episode shows Mr Beadle assessing the teenagers' skills on a weekend's residential course in a barn in Shropshire.

The event goes awry when the pupils sit up until 6am, damage property and threaten to set fire to the barn with a cigarette lighter.

However, Mr Beadle seems to win the students over with his risque introductory name-learning game, "Dickhead," where pupils sit in a circle and have to hold their fist to their foreheads if they make a mistake.

His movement-based lessons such as "Kung-fu punctuation", where pupils shout and make different martial-arts-style gestures for each punctuation mark, also go down well.

Professor Wragg hinted that later episodes would show tougher challenges for Mr Beadle and for Mr Atkinson, who was the inspiration for Lenny Henry's super-head character in the BBC series Hope and Glory.

"Some of it works and some of it doesn't work," he said. "It could be very exasperating sometimes.

"The last thing we wanted to tell teachers was 'Watch us clever dicks show you how you should be doing it'.

"Many of the kids' teachers have been doing a great job in their schools.

What we were trying to do was find a way to break the downward spiral that the kids had got caught in."

* michael.shaw@tes.co.uk

The Unteachables is due to start on Channel 4 on September 27 at 9pm

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