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A Lesson in How Not to Treat Children

by David Starkey

Daily Mail
14 May 2011

Anyone who watched the recent Channel 4 series Jamie's Dream School will have seen me getting a thorough dressing down from the headmaster for calling a pupil fat.  This scene was manipulated in the editing to make it appear as though I was the aggressor, when in fact the pupil, Conor, was already engaged in argy-bargy with his fellow classmates and me.

The headteacher, John DAbbro, who treats his pupils with kid gloves, should not have been in charge.  He said I might have wrecked this boy.  But that's nonsense, Conor was streetwise and tough.  He was also bright and charming, and we became chums.  The only way to deal with someone like that is to show them you are as tough as they are.

One of the lessons I learned from my time as a teacher on the series is that treating children as adults, as schools so often do - and this programme made the mistake of doing - simply doesn't work.  Children need to be called 'horrible little horrors' or the like, and denying this typifies what is wrong with much of the British state education system, which Jamie's series highlighted despite itself.  This was its most important function.

Conor actually put his finger on it.  When he met David Cameron, he said, "We're different from other generations of children".  But they are not.  They are the same little horrors that I was as a boy.  The only difference is they've been treated differently, left without discipline or structure, and that's catastrophic.  All this stuff about children's rights is pernicious.  Children don't have rights.  We have responsibilities to children.

The show was well-intentioned and the production team, although they held soft-Left liberal values on education, actually found themselves changing their minds.  The producer told me he had never been on such an intense learning curve.

A major downside was that it reinforced our celebrity culture, with the corrosive effect it has on children's ambition and attitudes to education.  Sadly, it turned all the children into mini-celebs.

For some, who had dropped out of the school system, it may have at least temporarily inspired them to return to education.  But let's not kid ourselves - programmes like this cannot work miracles.  To make a difference in a classroom you need three months minimum.  We had just a month, which made it very artificial.

Would I take part again?  With a different headmaster, one with proven talent at giving a school purpose and discipline, yes I would, but my teaching style will not change.  You can have all the resources in the world, but if you don't have a disciplined structure, you have nothing.