Television review

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The Independent Culture
Dispatches (C4) made you despair of the education system. Not the sump of indiscipline, aggression and pedagogic despair which the film set out to portray, but the system which had produced reporters who could so recklessly generalise from the particular and whose acceptance of statistical "facts" was so credulous. Where had their schools gone wrong?

They began this report on discipline in British schools with a very large claim: "This film," the voice-over noted, "could have featured almost any of the many thousands of teachers who graduate and enter British schools every year." In other words, the murky scenes of disorder, vandalism and aggression you saw were to be taken as typical of most classrooms in most schools. I can't advance any statistics in contradiction, but I simply don't believe it. Quite apart from the fact that the framing and context of the programme ensured that you saw even ordinary boisterousness as incipient riot, if this was representative of the norm rather than the exception, most children would barely be literate.

The English teacher who had "risked her career" to shoot a secret video of classroom wildlife insisted that she is a good teacher. There was no particular reason to doubt her as you never actually saw her teaching. What you could see was that she has serious problems with classroom discipline. "I've never had all the class facing forwards at the same time," she confessed forlornly, after another hard day on the front line. That she would prefer to think of this as symptomatic of a nationwide decline rather than evidence of a problem slightly closer to home is understandable, but Dispatches should have taken a more detached view. They had tried - including in their film the results of a survey of 20,000 schoolchildren. But their use of the figures was hardly scientific in its rigour: "Just under two per cent admit to carrying a gun themselves," they said in horrified tones. "That is one pupil in 50 armed with a gun." No it isn't - it's one pupil in 50 claiming to carry a gun, which is quite a different thing. The fact that this survey was carried out among adolescent boys, notorious for their creative relationship with hard facts, seems not to have given any pause for thought. "Tony offered to show us some guns," the programme noted, after an interview with a boy claiming to be a classroom arms dealer, "but we declined." One can understand the reasoning: programme-makers can hardly encourage 15-year-olds to commit a crime - but even so, it was frustrating that the only opportunity they had to distinguish boasting from brutal truth should be passed up, astonishing that they should present his testimony as hard fact.

This isn't to deny that problems exist, or to resist the idea that classroom culture has decayed in recent years. Some children seem to regard any contradiction of their wishes as the equivalent of an assault upon their person, one which justifies violent response. Teachers seem to have exhausted the possibilities of conciliation and persuasion. But the problem is too important for our perceptions to be muddied by exaggeration or panic. In this treatment, Dispatches got a tiny bit hysterical and started shrieking, and as many experienced teachers will tell you, that's the worst thing you can do in the face of disruption.

Modern Times's film "The Zone" (BBC2) alerted you to its distinctiveness from the very first frames, accompanying mournful scenes of desolation in Bosnia with what sounded like a mariachi band in full fiesta. Daniel Reed proved that he had a fine eye as well as a good ear (the soundtrack was excellent throughout, cocked for evocative oddities). His commentary free study of peacekeeping in northern Bosnia looked wonderful and delivered a dry irony - that of operations which have increased the amity between former enemies (the Americans and Russians who are serving together for the first time since World War II) while doing little to diminish the mutual hatred of Serb and Muslim.