We're all here in the search for hidden talent

15th May 2009 at 01:00

I do not watch television. It's fine for the likes of my pal Ray Tarleton, another Devon principal, as he gets to watch it all day so he can write his weekly TV review for the back of the TES Magazine. I, however, am a cultural snob for whom Puccini and Proust beat EastEnders every time.

So it is with the frisson of clandestine pleasure that I am admitting to my addiction to Britain's Got Talent. It's tacky, formulaic and schmaltzy. It's a wonderful, distorted metaphor for what schools are all about.

We spend our whole day trying to discover talent. The audience shudders with awe and delight when some unprepossessing oik suddenly sings like Sinatra or dances like Astaire. It's exactly the feeling that young trainees describe at interview when I ask them why they want to teach. It's the pleasure of seeing a child's face when they suddenly get Pythagoras and the grin of pride when you praise their sculpture. Schools have talent? You bet.

This show, along with The Apprentice (another confession), relies on old-fashioned paradigms. Simon Cowell is the crabby schoolmaster. He's sarcastic, rude and dismissive. All he lacks is a board rubber to throw at the incompetent lowlife in front of him. Alan Sugar is the grandstanding headmaster, flanked by his two deputies. Just as in real life, they are the ones who do the actual work.

Something very interesting happened in recent episodes of both these programmes. Instead of meekly accepting her verbal lashing from Cowell, a teenage girl shouted back at him. Cowell flinched while we teachers laid back in our chairs and chortled. The archetypal lippy, stroppy Year 10 harridan. What are you going to do now, Mr Cowell? We deal with these every day and could give you some advice, but we would rather watch you squirm.

Meanwhile, one of our erstwhile apprentices dared to question the judgment of Nick the deputy. Sir Alan delivered a headmasterial, "You talk to him like that again, my lad, and you're out", but the walls had been breached. Deference is dying on TV, only 40 years after it died everywhere else.

Schools are still dealing with the fallout from those subversive hippies, and it is something of a conundrum. We are still running institutions that demand very old-fashioned values of politeness and respect while trying to keep pace with ever-increasing democratisation and an emphasis on individual rights. There are tensions here, and we are not always aware of the nature of the experiment we are trying and just where it might all end.

Take pupil voice. We can no longer simply order pupils around and expect them to obey, so it is sensible to show them respect by listening to what they have to say about their learning. Most schools take the same line as Cowell's producers: give the audience the feeling of being in control of who wins, but only after the judges have selected the shortlist. So the school council can decide the colour of the prefects' badges, but not whether or not to have a school uniform.

There's also a lot of guff talked on this by well-meaning libertarians and assorted bandwagon-riders. These get pupils to dress up as Ofsted inspectors, parading around classrooms with clipboards before lining up teachers in front of the firing squad of their judgments. In their spare time, the mini-inspectors sit on interview panels to make difficult and subtle decisions about candidates. These pupils are the same people whose brain frontal lobes are not yet fully developed. They are incapable of fully rational judgments in response to emotional stimuli. It's called adolescence.

In the curriculum, the pursuit of individual rights is called personalisation. The national curriculum is dead. Forget entitlement, forget broad and balanced. It's now about facilitating the needs of the pupil to learn what they want in the way that best suits them. This is, of course, as long as it gives them a better chance of gaining five top-grade GCSEs. The logical extension of personalisation is to give pupils the choice of whether to attend school or not, which is presumably why the Government has raised the age for remaining in education to 18.

Technology is the new friend of democracy. The police learnt this when their Cowell-esque thuggery at the G20 summit was uncovered after being filmed on mobile phones. I recently suspended three pupils for filming their teacher and posting it on YouTube. What will I do when I get the first call from a parent who is watching a live webcast from their child's science lesson and asks could I go and sort out the teacher who is sitting picking his nose rather than helping the children?

No wonder teaching is such an increasingly stressful job. So it's just as well the rewards are correspondingly great. Jamie, an incredibly nervous contestant, brought the audience to its feet with a beautiful song from Les Miserables. Asked how it made him feel, he answered with one word: "complete". It's the feeling we want our pupils to have time and time again. It's the holy grail of education.

Roger Pope Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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