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Are Some Children Unteachable?

John Simkin

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Has anyone been watching the “Unteachables” on C4? It seems to raise several key issues. The most important one is: “Can pupils like Dale, Grace and Shane be taught in a normal school?” I ask this question as a friend teaches in the same school as these three children. You can imagine what their behaviour has been like since they have become “television stars”.

Another question concerns the teaching style of Phil Beadle (Guardian secondary school teacher of the year). This is what the newspapers have said about his teaching:

“You couldn't possibly call Beadle a traditionalist; there's not much that's back-to-basics about his approach. He is an innovator, unafraid of the modern.” (The Guardian)

“Refuses to accept students' backgrounds as an excuse for underachievement. (Evening Standard)

“Mr Motivator” (The Scotsman)

“An extraordinarily commanding teacher ... a late-starter to teaching who has become one of its finest practitioners. It would be hard not to be invigorated and inspired by his particular brand of teaching." (Teaching Awards Trust)

“The climate for learning is infectious. A highly creative teacher of English and Drama, Philip connects with pupils by using visual, audio and kinetic stimulus material in unique ways.” (Teachers' TV)

“He looks like a rock musician and is one of the very best teachers in the country.” John Humphrys (Daily Mail)

“Invigorating, inspiring and exceptional” (GTC Magazine)

Beadle is obviously a fine performer (actor) but is he really teaching them anything? I wonder how long he could keep this high-energy approach up. He seems to me to reveal the symptoms of a manic depressive. A recent entrant to teaching, I suspect he will be out the classroom giving training courses within a few months.

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I do not believe that any children are unteachable. I do however believe that many children are brought up in an unbearable climate, of neglect, poverty and disinterest and develop attitudes which make them very hard to teach in a formal setting.

The Educational Establishment of course applaud and award prizes to those characters (like the teacher in the programme) who by force of personality and the deployment of pseudo educational fads seem able to cope with such children because it confirms their wish that poor standards in schools are down to "poor teaching". It is extremely unlikely that the children in question are being taught anything other than the expectation that they should be entertained rather than educated in schools.

As ever it is cheaper to keep brow beating the teachers and to clutter their days with half baked nonsense such as the accelerated learning myth than it is for government to tackle the problems of widening inequality and deeper poverty in society generally.

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I have been following the series with interest. Phil Beadle is impressive - although his "high energy" approach is not unusual. As a teacher of modern foreign languages in secondary education, I recall doing almost as much jumping around - and so did many of my colleagues. This is fairly typical of many teachers of modern foreign languages.

I am not convinced that Phil Beadle is really teaching anything, but he is a great entertainer. A couple of points:

1. Most of the children selected for the series do not appear to come from families that are financially badly off, but they seem to have developed behaviour problems as a result of bad parenting. I spent several years as a school governor and occasionally had to sit on committees involving discipline problems. Most of the problem children came from families that were financially very comfortable, with both parents bringing in a good income. This was probably the root of most problems. Both parents were so busy earning money that they had no time for their children. I spent a lot of time with my two daughters as they grew up, and so did my wife. My daughters often referred to me as a "Victorian father". I did not tolerate answering back, tanturms etc. They grew up into two well educated, charming young women, and my wife and I always enjoy their company.

2. Children are being excluded even from this select group. So even Phil Beadle and the headteacher in this series have their limitations and give up on some children.

Most children are teachable, but some probably need to be taken out of the mainstream and given special attention.

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As for the TV series I preferred the original version with Eliot Ness :huh:

Apart from David Blunkett I doubt anyone thinks there is one right method of teaching. Actually it is a pretty poor teacher who has *one* method of teaching. Some methods work better for some pupils. The most "unteachable" pupil for me will respond to someone else who finds some of my pupils "unteachable."

And not all pupils respond to manic teachers, although they make more interesting TV.

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Ah, Kelly! Now there's a name to conjure with. Probably the most disastrous education minister that I can remember. As Ted Wragg put it (The Guardian, 21 June 2005):

There is a temptation to come up with more apt uses of Ruth Kelly's name, reflecting, for example, her tendency to read mechanically speeches written by the prime minister's butler.

Kelly jelly: gelatinous rubbish uttered to a conference of professionals, the content of which turns to a runny liquid on close inspection.

Kelly telly: a television programme devoid of substance, in which the presenter reads from the autocue without comprehension.

Doing a Kelly: blundering crassly by misreading a situation, such as patronising people who know more than you do.

I offer Ruth Kelly a suggestion. Immerse yourself in what is actually happening in successful schools and classrooms, so that you can say, quite naturally: "The other day I saw a really interesting idea in a school in Swineshire." And send the spin doctors off for a long holiday in Albania.

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At the end of last week’s programme, Phil Beadle, Ted Wragg, and William Atkinson argued that the experiment had been a success. I would question that. Three out of the 12 students had to be suspended. Another difficult student left on their own accord. Those left did complete the course. However, none of the teachers were successful at getting them to record what they had learnt.

It clearly is possible to contain 8 students when you have the back-up provided to the teachers during this experiment. Teachers could get students removed from the classroom. They were also able to threaten students with being expelled from the study centre if they behaved badly. This was important as the students clearly enjoyed being there (mainly because of the enjoyable activities outside the classroom). The teachers also had several teaching assistants at their disposal.

Despite this, Beadle outrageously criticised the schools that these students came from as ignoring their talents and abilities.

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I agree 100% with John's last posting. I think the experiment was a failure. Beadle is a great performer, but I'm not convinced that the children learned much English from him. However, one of the science teachers seemed to be making some progress in capturing the children's attention in a lesson on the human heart.

Being excluded from this cosy little experiment was hardly a serious threat for the students who were shown the door. Maybe they were just trying to prove a point in front of the cameras that they were indeed "unteachable".

I wonder what will happen when this group seeks employment. Employers are pretty good at not accepting anyone who comes across as sullen or stroppy in an interview and they are also pretty quick at throwing anyone out who does not knuckle down in training sessions.

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