‘If I have to give advice for an English student, I would say that you would be in for a considerable number of cultural shocks.’ A sixteen-year-old Indian pupil, Anal, made this observation to Channel 4 TV.
He was being interviewed for Indian Summer School, the current ‘fly-on-wall’ documentary that plunges five British lads aged 17 and 18 into the prestigious boarding school Doon College, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Between them the youngsters have only one GCSE ‘pass’ in a core subject.
The British pupils involved are not, yet, lost souls but as a result of their education and upbringing, they are on the edge. They are typical of the main losers in our school system – white working-class boys. Too many schools, not least in in our white ghettos, have gates emblazoned with banners heralding success. In some cases it would be more honest to display Dante’s inscription over the gate of Hell – ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate).
To his eternal credit, Matthew Raggett, the British headmaster of Doon College, is of the belief that six months at his school may be enough to turn around the lives of these disaffected, disengaged and uneducated young Brits. He once taught in a Swindon comprehensive and recalls that ‘many of the students there were highly distracted by what else was going on in their lives. It is my hope that the experience of working-class lads from the UK coming to Doon will be magical and will transform their [chances of] success.’
We await the third and final episode of the series but reports suggest more success than otherwise. Taking young people out of the environment – home and school – where they are failing and being failed may provide a lesson beyond the confines of a television programme.
A parallel documentary, Living with the Brainy Bunch, is to be screened by BBC 2 on Thursday. Again, it deals with the issue of under-performing teenagers. This time, though, the setting is Kingston upon Thames, south-west London – far from the Himalayas but with, it seems, some similar outcomes for the youngsters concerned.
The low-attaining teens at an 11-16 comprehensive are sent to live with high-performing classmates from the same school. Unsurprisingly, they encounter a much stricter parenting regime in their new homes. As with Doon College in India, the first teen ‘addictions’ to be banned or curtailed are late nights, alcohol, smart phones/tablets and irregular meal-times.
According to the Sunday Times, the impact of this stricter parenting resulted in a significant improvement in attainment of the under-performing pupils.
Shrey Nagalia, an assistant housemaster at Doon College, told Channel 4: ‘No Indian parent takes education for granted and no Indian parents tell their children to take education for granted. Education in India means something that determines a student’s future.’ Much the same message came from the host parents in Kingston.
TV experiments cannot be unrolled as a national strategy for saving disaffected and sometimes dangerous teenagers from themselves. These latest documentaries have, however, strengthened the case for a major expansion of state boarding schools. Such schools are currently few in number. They cannot rival Doon College but they do out-perform most other state schools in the UK. Acting in loco parentis they may offer a means of salvation for that small minority of young people who are currently at the gate described by Dante.