The Guinea Pig — experiments in schooling deprived teenagers

Richard Attenborough as the working class Guinea Pig (1948)

Looking at all the wistful posters for the new TV series, Jamie’s Dream School immediately made me think of the Boulting Brothers’ fascinating film sixty three year- old film The Guinea Pig — also for popular entertainment — about an educational experiment with  a working class boy put into a posh Eton-like boarding school.

Mr Attenborough changes trains and social class

Richard Attenborough manages to carry off playing a  sixteen-year-old in short trousers –despite being 25  — with the same conviction as the dark hearted Pinkie 3 years later in Brighton Rock. The two would make a great double bill; as relevant today about our own anxieties over youth crime, entrenched poverty, and low aspiration and social mobility.

Attenborough’s fellow students are posh bastards. He’s ragged mercilessly at first. Incidentally I know a journalist from a  financially-modest background, at Eton in the 1980s (his parents were university academics, actually) whose schoolmates actually called hin “pleb”. Attenborough’s cut-glass accented teachers worry about whether they’ve just made it worse for him, but talent and heard work earn the Guinea Pig the respect of his fellow pupils and in an ever so discreet way, presented to a postwar British audience only just starting to experience grammar schools, the possibilities of a ladder out of a ghetto.

More than 60 years on where are we? For children living in areas with very poor performing schools the exceptionally talented few from genuinely deprived backgrounds — who some would say, once might have  got assisted places at private schools, till Tony Blair’s Labour government abolished them on coming to power — now might try for the few grammar schools or, hope to be picked by programmes like Teach First and Aim Higher — much praised by the new Conservative Education secretary Michael Gove.

TV does have a current tendency to pick the most extremely disengaged for possible fame. (Big Brother anyone?) And Jamie’s Dream School lavishes high profile talents on a select few dropouts, not themselves any strangers to the benefit of becoming a TV brand (Cherie Blair, Alastair, Campbell, Lord Winston, David Starkey).Even if the young guinea pigs are convinced into re-engaging with education, shows like this could be seen to perform a Secret Millionaire role — serving up tiny human samples of wider social problems for entertainment, with the claim of being morally uplifting. One media star created by the Guinea Pig reality TV format  — Phil Beadle who taught “Unteachables” — remains influential and engaged in education; and the arguments over free schools.  And Jamie Oliver’s sincerity and commitment to reforming School Dinners and troubled lives, through his Fifteen restaurant programme, is not in question. But as we watch the new show this week, one wonders about the short and long term impact on the participants, whose  life choices will be weighted by their TV “fame” from now on. TV inevitably focuses on dramatic potential to pull an audience. Who is willing to lavish attention on all the children not at the very top or very bottom of educational attainment, and their families’ struggles to get a decent education?

Further reading: Cambridge Professor, Mary Beard, who taught Latin in the Jamie Oliver series has written a thoughtful article about the issues in The Guardian.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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