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TV classroom full of trouble

Techniques used in Channel 4's 'The Unteachables' series fail to win over teachers. Nick Hilborne reports

Whatever is the matter with Grace? The 13-year-old cannot stop swearing, walking out of classes, and even fights a teacher with a pole. When offered anger management sessions how does she react? She gets angry.

She is one of 16 disruptive Year 9 pupils picked from three secondaries who appeared in Channel 4's The Unteachables this week.

The project is led by Ted Wragg, the TES columnist, who is assisted by William Atkinson, head of Phoenix school in Hammersmith, London and Vivian Hill, an educational psychologist. Phil Beadle, the 2004 secondary teacher of the year, does the teaching.

Together they are using a range of progressive teaching techniques and strict classroom discipline on the disaffected 13 and 14-year-olds.

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

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

The first episode opened this week with Grace and the others behaving in a way which might earn them the label "unteachable".

In one incident, Grace arrives 20 minutes late for a mock exam, she is separated from a friend after only five minutes, and 10 minutes later struts out.

On the residential course in a Suffollk barn, Mr Beadle gradually wins the teenagers over with games and group exercises.

It appears to be a triumph until a clip of what happens when lessons begin is revealed. Mr Beadle is seen losing his temper when pupils refuse to make an effort.

For Liz Lewis, head at St Joseph's academy, south London, the show was depressing. She described Mr Beadle as a 1970s throwback. "I would never give him a job, let alone an award," she said.

Mel Woodcock, head of North Manchester high boys' school, said: "It's easy to do some stunts for a weekend, but it will be interesting to see what happens when he tries to teach them something."

Louisa Leaman, a teacher at Waverley special school in Enfield, London, and a behaviour management adviser, said she thought the children were merely disillusioned. "I would not class them as unteachable" she said. "Some of our children can be extremely violent and are completely unable to cope with a controlled environment."

Ms Woodcock said that although Mr Beadle's teaching techniques were not new, the programme highlighted the importance of treating pupils as individuals, and accepting their problems.

"It is a sign of the facelessness of many large secondary schools that so many children like the ones in this show fall through the net," she said.

At the end of the programme Grace has made such good progress she is described as absolutely marvellous by Mr Beadle.

Keep watching though, because in the next episode, as we see from a clip, she's back to telling teachers to fuck off.

* newsdesk@tes.co.uk

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