With documentary cameras now, seemingly, ever present in school classrooms, it was only a matter of time before a broadcaster came up with a twist on the observational format.
Cue Channel 4’s Class of Mum and Dad, which sees 17 parents – and one grandparent – form their own class at Blackrod Primary School in Bolton and study the year six curriculum (for 10- to 11-year-olds).
The six-week-long experiment – in which the parents wore school uniform and were subjected to the same rules – would horrify many people, but not Bill Bones. Instead, the 70-year-old grandfather to Jessica, nine, and five-year-old Jack, jumped at what he calls a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to experience what happens behind the school gates.
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“My wife Gloria and I have always been hands-on grandparents and, since my stepdaughter passed away two years ago at the age of 34 from cancer, the children have stayed with us several nights a week,” he says.
“I’ve always helped them with their homework, and as a school governor I pride myself on having a good overview of the school, but there’s no better way to really get a sense of how somewhere works than to immerse yourself: sitting in the odd lesson doesn’t give you a full picture.”
Bill’s own school days, of course, are a long way behind him. His time at a Staffordshire primary in the 1950s was not a happy one. “I was a bright boy but I had an awful stammer, which meant I struggled to get my voice heard,” he says. “No one tried to tackle the stammer and it meant I was also bullied quite badly.”
Discipline was also harsh – and frequently administered. “It was the era of the cane and the hurled blackboard rubber and I was on the receiving end of both, often for fairly minor infractions like not concentrating properly,” he says.
He left school at 15 with little in the way of qualifications, although he went on to set up his own business. “It made me realise that although education is important, you shouldn’t get too hung up on exam grades,” he adds.
Like many of his fellow classmates, Bill had little idea what to expect of his return to school. “We all had to sit a test on the very first day to see where we were at in terms of maths and comprehension, and I think the level of expectation took some parents by surprise. A few got really upset as they couldn’t answer quite a lot of the questions.”
Bill, it turns out, fared entirely as he predicted. “I assumed I would be fine in maths and anything technical and do less well on the English and comprehension side, and it worked out exactly that way. I actually had to be taught to write properly in what they call script or joined-up handwriting, as I write in print. I didn’t expect to be learning to write again at 70,” he laughs.
It wasn’t the only surprise: the sheer number of subjects taught in the year group also took him aback. “Over the course of six weeks we did everything from maths and comprehension to art, geography and dancing. It was jam-packed. I was also surprised by the depth of knowledge expected of the children in our year, particularly in maths. It was a reminder that whatever the talk about declining standards, I think they are higher than they have ever been.”
He was equally impressed with the quality of the lessons. “One exercise involved writing our own book, from designing its cover in our art lesson to writing it,” he says. “I can’t remember anything creative like that from my school days.”
Less impressive, alas, was the behaviour of some of his classmates: on one occasion, Bill recalls, the head teacher “tore a strip” off the grown-up class, telling them that reception and year one had been better behaved during a fire drill.
“There was a bit of silly bad behaviour, and I think there was an element of a couple of the parents acting up for the cameras and hoping they could make a name for themselves,” he says. “The majority, though, were interested in doing it properly, even if they did play up a bit sometimes.”
As for Bill – he didn’t have the energy to misbehave. “Mentally it was actually pretty draining,” he explains. “Every night I fell asleep as my wife was getting the tea ready.”
Class of Mum and Dad is on Tuesday 8:00pm C4