Hey kids, leave that teacher alone

15 July 2006
The Times and The Sunday Times

As a teacher, I felt distinctly uncomfortable watching Channel 4’s new show, The Law of the Playground. But maybe that’s the point. This seven-part series is about all the stuff a phalanx of trendily dressed, tedious twenty and thirtysomethings got up to at school: the silly pranks, the mindless nicknames, the cruel imitations, the ritualised games and the taunting of teachers.

It is based on Jonathan Blyth’s The Law of the Playground website (www.playgroundlaw.com) and book, which have gathered a cult following because they are stuffed with supposedly amusing schoolyard anecdotes.

I felt uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Principally, the show is not funny. It is full of Z-list celebrities who are desperately trying to be whacky and, for the most part, failing miserably. The only really famous personality on the show, Vic Reeves, is the lamest of the lot — quite what induced him to participate is beyond me. The humour is toe-curlingly unconvincing because the minor acts of rebellion that were hilarious for many of the interviewees are simply not funny for the audience. The medium of the talking head on television is not best suited to this kind of material: watching a celebrity you’ve never heard of hoot his head off about some act of nastiness he committed when he was seven years old just isn’t that comical. The website is much more successful because it can be dipped in and out of and it doesn’t demand that you laugh: you’ve got a moment to reflect on each story.
Which is certainly something I did after watching the show. I have taught in comprehensives for more than 15 years and the stories recounted here had a ghastly contemporary ring to them. For all of the interviewees, their tales of giving pupils wedgies, of pronouncing “gay” and “bummer” all the time, of farting at inopportune moments, of lying, of disrupting lessons were in the distant past. Not so for me, or any teacher in British schools today. Much was made of farting on the show; I can testify from bitter experience that farting games are still very popular.
In one of my classes, a troublesome boy emitted a loud fart while shouting at the top of his voice: “Safety!” — the code word for this particular game. Immediately, there was a rush for the door as everyone tried to touch the door handle. A flurry of cussing ensued as the pupils screamed, “I touched the knob first! I touched it first! That means you get beats! Beats!” The boy who had done this then turned to the rest of the gang and pummelled the arms of his peers. I learnt later that the first one to touch the door knob was entitled to beat everyone else. I looked on in astonishment and dismay. My lesson on Shakespeare’s language was ruined: another language had supplanted it, the schoolboy language of “farts” and “knobs” and mayhem.
Mercifully, such incidents stand out because they are rare in lesson times. However, they are traumatic for the teacher and often for other pupils too. Most children want to learn: they hate their lessons being ruined by idiots intent upon drawing attention to themselves.

The media, though, is full of such clowns — most of whom scrape a living now by speaking on asinine shows such as The Law of the Playground. The problem is that such TV programmes are very influential and do affect pupils’ behaviour, which in recent years has been getting noticeably worse. A recent survey by Teacher TV found that 66 per cent of teachers felt that there is a discipline crisis in our schools. Government figures released this June showed that suspensions for pupil misbehaviour have risen by 13 per cent last year.

Research for my book Yob Nation made me realise that much of the blame can be laid at the door of the media. Millions of young children are brainwashed into stupid behaviour by reality TV shows like Big Brother, which elevate boorish, violent show-offs to the level of celebrities. The Law of the Playground follows very much in this pattern: it is superficial and does not examine any issue for more than a minute. Why couldn’t they have given a voice to the teachers who were victims of these pranks? At least then the viewer would have known whether the stories were true.

Actually, I know why they didn’t. First, this would have been too much like hard work for the cynical people making the show, and second, it would have made the show too intellectual. As a result, teachers, disabled people, gays . . . are mere fodder to be laughed and jeered at. They have no opportunity to answer back.
The programme-makers and participants of this moronic show should be ashamed of themselves.

• Francis Gilbert teaches in an outer London comprehensive and is the author of Yob Nation (Piatkus Books); www.francisgilbert.co.uk. The Law of the Playground, C4, Friday, 9.30pm

‘Childish but funny’

Jonathan Blyth defends his Law of the Playground

With my old school friends, there’s a set routine of nostalgia that we go through once a year, never acknowledging that we’ve done it a dozen times before. Remember making pools out of saliva and putting worms in it? What about that lad with the brain tumour? He was christened Kebab, because we imagined the surgical process involved a doctor stabbing around in his brain with a skewer. With distance, partial disbelief and alcohol, it’s funny.

When I put our memories on the internet — with an invitation for others to share their own stories — it felt pretty extreme, and unique. But among the first stories to come in were Chisel Man, a guy who ruled woodwork lessons with savage random violence (and a chisel), and the train-obsessed child who gathered furniture to re-create his lounge around a railway track. My stories suddenly seemed tame.
Obviously, the media affect children’s behaviour. Blue Peter turned Joey Deacon into a playground phenomenon, and QED caused foul-mouthed chaos when it did a programme about Tourette syndrome. But it’s difficult to imagine a child watching The Law of the Playground and thinking: “I know — I’m going to trump in geography tomorrow.” The rules of “beats” have been there for decades (albeit by a dozen different names); we’ve just mostly forgotten them.

It was difficult to defend being childish in the website and book, beyond the fact that it can be funny. It can also be embarrassing, dangerous, charming and devastating. You’ve just got to get the balance right.

your comment

Published in