That’ll Teach ‘em

Tuesday, September 7, 2004 by

What a difference a school year makes. A mere 12 months separate this series of That’ll Teach ‘em from its highly successful forerunner. 12 calendar months are also all that separate the ages of both sets of participants, for here are another bunch of 16-year-olds, fresh from sitting their own GCSEs, submitting themselves to the equivalent examinations from a few decades ago.

But there the neatness and symmetry ends. Rather than challenge intelligent students to match their skills against a rigorous, demanding parallel from the 1950s, this sequel has tossed under-achieving pupils into a 1960s-style Secondary Modern. Flagged up as the worse kind of comprehensive schooling around, we’re repeatedly told this is giving them what they deserve, and that what they make of it is up to them. As a consequence, far from being a celebration or promotion of a particular way of learning – as was implied in the original run – this time round the programme boasts the air of a retrograde, negative exercise done for the sake of it.

The narration and visuals kick off the problem, presenting an image of blighted students slumming it in an outdated, bankrupted system. In a stroke, the one thing that made last year’s That’ll Teach ‘em such great viewing – individuals revelling in the chance to master an environment that was revelling the idea of challenging them in return – has gone. Instead of a programme, as OTT previously observed, humanising lofty theories about education, we’re now faced with one dehumanising the whole business of education itself.

All of which, at the end of the day, makes for decidedly glum viewing. While the first series boasted entertaining variations of bright kids doing badly, here we’re offered almost wall-to-wall scenes of poorly-performing kids performing poorly. We’re either watching them doing just as badly in 1960s-versions of core subjects like maths, spelling and geography as they do in the present day, or we’re having to endure numerous sequences showing them go to pieces when confronted with the Secondary Modern’s speciality: decidedly non-academic, highly-vocational tasks.

This was actually diverting enough for the first couple of episodes, while there was still hope we’d get to know a bit more about the individual students rather than concentrate so much on their collective reactions. This far in, however (episode four of five), the amount of repetition is sorely undermining whatever new points the series is minded to make. Having been denied the opportunity to really get to know the pupils, it’s regrettable yet almost impossible to care how they feel about their circumstances. In conclusion, all that lingers once the programme is over is an impression of unending streams of open-mouthed gasps (the boys) and endless, unrelenting shrieking (the girls).

Right at the heart of this dilemma is the sense you just can’t accept the blanket responses shown on screen with anything approaching seriousness. The way we’ve been almost encouraged to ignore the emotional resonance of all the goings-on for the sake of that bit more attention and air time on the set-piece tomfoolery has left the latter looking increasingly not just out of place but, well, over-the-top. Sure, there are some pupils who we glimpse basking in genuine pride at mastering a practical skill. But it’s desperately hard not to avoid a sense of bemusement at the outpourings of exuberance prompted by, say, someone daring to hold a chicken, light an oven, put two bricks on top of each other, or fold a nappy.

This is no reflection on the students themselves. Rather it’s the fact that, unlike in the previous series, we’ve been denied the chance to get under the skin of almost all the people featured on screen, teachers included. As such, rather than understand or associate with their valiant declarations of purpose, such platitudes by and large ring hollow. It’s a shame, because at face value the pupils are no less rounded or genuine or intrigued by what’s happening to them than their forerunners last year; it’s just the clumsy framework of the programme that is doing them no favours.

On top of this, footage of the students grappling with naming capital cities, or pertinent bible stories, tends to focus even at this late stage in proceedings solely on those who continue to get things wrong. But there’s an additional issue here. When one pupil was asked to recount how Jesus was traditionally supposed to have fed the five thousand and replied “didn’t he just cut it all up?” she was met with howls of laughter from her classmates. Yet was it shared laughter at the stupidity of the question – as if anyone would know the answer to that! – or genuine unrestrained mocking from a room full of people who did know the answer?

There’s no way of being sure, because we’re almost never shown kids getting things right in their lessons, only wrong. Those who do succeed are painted as loners, eccentrics or “characters” by the narration, and set up as outcasts who are making progress by chance rather than design. Anybody else who “wins” at something seems to be mostly engaged in those aforementioned rudimentary chores, like typing or baking.

Being in no place to second guess the true aim of the programme-makers, it’s perhaps fair to assume nobody involved in the project envisaged things ending up appearing quite as muddled as they are. The kids themselves will probably have a further take on events; indeed, it was interesting how a vocal minority set about the Channel 4 message boards in the aftermath of the last series to claim they’d been somewhat ruthlessly set up, and that what happened on screen was a violently selective version of reality. Of course, this charge can be levelled at any fly-on-the-wall documentary, and is part and parcel of this kind of television. In most cases, however, adroit editing works to such a programme’s advantage, allowing themes to be enhanced, characters to be showcased and foibles to be exposed. In this particular instance, however, the reverse seems to have happened, resulting in issues being muddied, personalities obscured and quirks observed but never explored. Even now it’s hard to recall any of the students’ names or faces.

That’s why, ultimately, you come away from a programme like this feeling like you’ve been taken for granted, that you’ve been duped into expecting something you never get, and then left to feel silly for wanting that something in the first place. It’s a big shame, but then maybe the elements which made the original series of That’ll Teach ‘em such a thrill could only come together to produce such magic once and once only. In which case, you’re left to wonder, why bother with it any more. Besides, there are plenty of other places to watch a bunch of people holding a chicken.


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