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  • 31 March 2006

Can he teach ‘em? Sussex lecturer lands leading role in school reality TV series

James Williams

James Williams

A University of Sussex lecturer in education discovered the harsh discipline of school life 50 years ago for a reality television series.

The third series of 'That'll Teach 'Em' starts on Channel 4 on April 4, featuring James Williams as deputy headmaster, housemaster and biology teacher in a fictional 1950s grammar school for boarders.

It was after he was asked to advise the programme-makers on the history of science and science education that Mr Williams, who worked as a teacher for 20 years in secondary schools, got involved with the historical reality series to teach 30 teenagers in single-sex classes.

"For four weeks I lived in the Fifties," he recalls. "I slept on the same type of iron-framed hospital bed as they did, ate the same food, went to sleep in the early hours and got up in the early hours, especially if I was punishing the boys with an early morning run or shoe shine.

"We were filmed for up to 16 hours a day, and had always to be 'in role'. We had full teaching days, with prep and detentions."

Mr Williams, 43, drew on his own memories of being a pupil to become a harsh disciplinarian and at one point told an outspoken youngster to shut up because he was a child who therefore could not have an opinion. "In those days teachers tolerated no backchat and no opinions from children," he says.

Does he train his Sussex students to teach like that? "Actually, I've told them that if I catch them teaching like me I'd fail them immediately and throw them off the teacher training course."

But with boys these days falling further and further behind girls in exam tables and displaying chronic disinterest in the sciences, the series asks whether reverting to a practical, 1950s-style single-sex education would make a difference. Will the boys close the gap, or will the girls stretch their lead?

A spin-off series, 'That'll Test 'Em', has also been filmed. Hosted by comedian Jeremy Hardy, it pitches pupils from the fictional school against their parents and relatives. Mr Williams is a 'surprise' supply teacher in the third programme, due to be aired on 25 April.

Notes for editors

 James Williams can be contacted on 07973 137226


That'll Teach 'Em starts on Channel 4, Tuesday April  4, at 9pm


University of Sussex press contacts Jacqui Bealing and Maggie Clune,  Tel: 01273 678888 Email:

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