We all know David Starkey was a terrible teacher… don’t we?

February 19, 2013

In the midst of the completely unedifying ideological battle over the teaching of history, a letter appeared in the Guardian from one of the “experts” who we are all meant to listen to. Most of it is just insult, responding to previous insults, responding to yet more insults from people whose lack of professional courtesy shocks me, and I’m an anonymous blogger. If historians wanted to give politicians every reason to ignore their views on the curriculum, this is the right way to go about it.

But what actually annoyed me was this bit:

Ferguson boasts that he’s “written and presented popular history”, but being a telly don doesn’t equip you for the realities of the classroom, as David Starkey found to his cost in Jamie’s Dream School.

This is a reference to David’s Starkey bust up with a bunch of difficult teenagers while trying to teach on the TV programme “Jamie’s Dream School” – reality TV not classroom reality – which I’ve seen trotted out again and again as an example of bad teaching, or how being an expert won’t help you teach.

Of course, this whole incident was based on a television programme trying to show the most sensational footage. What if it had been cut to show the quality of the teaching rather than the difficulty of the students’ behaviour?

Well we have an answer to that question. Here is just the teaching from that infamously terrible lesson.

OFSTED would no doubt disagree, but I think that’s pretty brilliant.

Worth bearing in mind if you are ever told that the best route to behaviour management is through good teaching.


  1. Quite. Behaviour problems are the result of bad children, not bad teachers.

    • I think he actually held the attention of the class and simply gave them a large and perhaps uncomfortable dose of the truth. Many of the other teachers just mollycoddled them. He explained to them in very simple terms the importance of history, their place within it and the importance of understanding the world around them. And yeah he was rude. Well people are rude – deal with it.

  2. I remember watching this 1st time around.

    I thought the whole exercise pretty fatuous and wouldn’t really prove anything about anything.

    Although, to be fair, some of the appalling and feckless student conduct rang a few bells.

    However- some of the mistakes Starky made also rang a few bells with me too.

    He started with an interesting bit about Anglo-Saxon artefacts.

    But then he changed course and started hectoring and lecturing…

    1. “you are here because you ‘failed'” OPPS- alienation and insult

    2. no Q&A. Nothing visual or colourful at a distance. Back row instantly less engaged.

    3. ‘remember why you are here’ – patronising and confrontational- and the kids hadnt even done anything wrong at that point.

    4. ‘bottom of the social pile’. getting their backs up nicely now. some kids int that room will already feel that way about themselves. Starky did mean anything nasty, but the words will ring in the kids ears. They wont decode what hes saying with subtlety.

    5. ‘will never go anywhere” – the kids have heard this stuff all their lives. Why should they listen to this guy in a suit they dont know when such words never made an impact from their parents or headteachers last year and the year before?

    Starky means well but this kind of ‘lecture mode’ is an ineffectual strategy for kids like this.

    6. eventually does some Q&A- badly chosen questions that drift from philosophy to existentialism- the questions are too tough, too open ended, almost un-answerable. A seasoned teacher knows that if the questions cant be answered easily you lose the kids. muttering starts. Once they start their own, more interesting conversations (to them), its uphill from then on.

    He appeared to be making questions up on the spot, like a comedian without material. You have to know a class really well before you throw around mind bending questions- then you can sustain periods of silent, focussed contemplation.

    7.”opportunities are closing down” – well whats the point then…

    8. “telling you what to do”- oh so my dads a loser is he? whats wrong with the services industry? the forces? Um, can we have some history please? – isn’t this a history lesson?

    9. “My mum scrubbed floors”- um, couldn’t give a …… I don’t even KNOW you

    Sharing details about oneself can be really effective, if drip fed, judiciously, over months, in guiding and nurturing a class you trust.

    10. “had his teeth removed without anaesthetic”- that bit of ‘shock jock” info did actually engage the kids, and had it been part of a lesson plan- perhaps connected with anglo- saxon history (?!), then, maybe it could have led to something….

    11. “school is the way to escape etc”- rather than teach a history lesson the motivational speech has backfired and now an argument has erupted.

    12. “why are you wearing ties”- We all know this a relevant question and where he wanted it to lead to but now that he has already faced antagonism why choose TIES? why not earrings or bracelets, something which kids wont despise? That nearly derailed the discussion.

    13. “You were talking about job interviews earlier” – that bit was good, implicit praise to a student.

    14. “thou art beautiful” – oh dear. “Youre a perv sir!, hey everyone, sir wants to bunk up with …..”

    15. Its 12 mins in before he gets going on his lesson. Thats far too long a hiatus but hes already insulted them and said something that could easily result in a verbal warning and multiple parental complaints and a career long reputation as a pedophile.

    16. “God help us all but women live longer”. — “sirs a sexist!”

    17. “Brittania”- interesting, well taught. Took questions well too.

    18. Showing the artifacts, but not showing them to the kids up close. Back row tough luck. Notice the cockney boy patiently and politely putting his hand up. The ‘beautiful’ girl however shouts out as and when she pleases, with impunity.

    19. Music clip. Good. Of course if you are happy to bander around the word f**k so casually. Maybe could have made the same point with a slightly different clip?

    20. At 23.40 hes in full flow quoting stuff, the cameras shows a class bored to tears and barley listening. Struggling to behave really.

    The clip I saw in the aired program was much worse when he called the cockney boy ‘fat’. That went VERY badly.

    Even though the kids are badly behaved and truculent (if you saw the whole show you would know this) but they werent any worse than some of kids I have taught over the years.

    If Starky has done those things in some of the school I know, there would have been severe conduct issues and events. I think Jamie and the camera team inhibited this occurring.

    Starkys knowledge is excellent, but he needed to be trained up so as to handle difficult classes.

    This is where the skills of the classroom practitioner are so underrated.

    I know excellent History teachers that would have got that class to do lots of written work, good focussed discussion where most kids took part and the kids learned far more than they did with Starky and would have held held their teacher in higher esteem. Behaviour would have been good and the kids, on the whole, would have felt they had learnt and achieved something.

    Yet in a strict academic sense such teachers might be inferior to Starky. For me you need both sufficient knowledge and sufficient skills to deal with most UK classes.

    • “A seasoned teacher knows that if the questions cant be answered easily you lose the kids.”

      Sorry, is this satire?

      • no it wasn’t satirical…perhaps I didn’t explain myself clearly.

        In an ‘opening lesson’, with challenging students, your initial questions need to be easily answered and accessible.

        Before you move onto more challenging questions.

        Otherwise you get what you saw.

        Obviously if you consistently pitch your questions too low, then you limit progress and promote boredom. No argument there.

    • In what way do you think the behaviour of the class in those two clips was poor? Even if they weren’t wholly engaged with the subject matter and the overly-talky method of transference, they bore their pain politely. Overthinking and overplanning of lessons are a modern curse. Students smiling, talking in groups and cutting things out are not necessarily learning more of value than if they just patiently listened from time to time. Further to your points about his “insulting” them – they need to hear the word FAIL applied to them more often. They may very well have simply “deferred success” but painful reality does have a place in schools before they are turned out into a world that will make damn sure they know what it means.

      • poor conduct in 1st clip:
        – shouting out
        – not wearing uniform neatly
        – swearing
        – Interrupting
        – Not listening
        – Looking openly bored
        – appearing to sleep
        – refusal to engage/participate/contribute

        poor conduct in 2nd clip:
        – as above but much less of it

        I agree they may have behaved much worse if the camera crew had not been there.

        I myself am a bit of a traditionalist but never in my career have I seen ‘hectoring’ turn around a single child.

        I am all for the teacher having unfettered authority and I firmly believe in detentions and sanctions etc.

        But he was insulting them. And if he had done that in some schools I know, he would be lucky not to get assaulted.

        Im not saying he would ‘deserve’ it (I don’t), Im just staying what I believe to be a fact.

        Anyway, by the 2nd clip, he had got most of them onside, so in the future, if he wants to tell them a few ‘home truths’ then they might actually listen.

      • I haven’t seen the other bits but it’s clear some of the worst behaviour has been edited out. By the end you can hear the pupils almost drowning him out. The learning he’s actually trying to deliver is ok and as Rob says there are some good bits in there, but there’s also some terrible bits – insulting the kids, wandering off at complete tangents and not giving them anything to actually do (maybe why they’re all doodling on exercise books for much of it!).

        I think to describe it as “pretty brilliant” is stretching it rather.

        • Really fascinated to see teachers think it’s “insulting” someone to state that they have failed when they have been objectively measured as having done so.

          No wonder these people take nothing seriously – by the time anyone makes them they’ve ruined their lifes beyond recovery.

          • Thats not quite what I (or others) meant. There are ways of phrasing things.

            If you mdc, happened to be vertically challenged, and I shout in your face “you are a short ass!!”- its a tad insulting- however accurate it may be.

            If you happen to have lower than average intelligence and I loudly proclaim “you are are NOT bright!!” its also a mite impolite.

            If you energetically address a group of students who you have never met before and launch into a speech stating that ‘they are failures” you are going to get a less then enthusiastic reception.

            Perhaps Starkey thought he would try the Sargent Major approach or thought he might shock them into engagement- I don’t know.

            I would be prepared to bet however, that now he’s had some experience, he would approach that 1st lesson VERY differently indeed if he could have another go and would be much more successful 2nd time around.

  3. Thanks for the 2nd clip.

    1. Notice how he manages to annoy the kids and start an argument even during his introduction. Its like he cannot help himself… “women are weak”… jeez

    2. However his intro was short and succinct- better.

    3. A good opening video clip to show jouster. Visual and humorous – kids on side.

    4. Wow what a contrast now compared to 1st clip. Quick closed questions that engage and motivate the class. They are responding and he’s not ‘lecturing’.

    Hes sprinkling his expert knowledge in between good responses from the kids.

    Engagement levels are high, they are being made to think, apply logic and even moderate, problem solving.

    They are learning History despite themselves.

    5. “How can I know his exact height”. Excellent question. He’s now moved from closed questions to more open ones and the class are now indulging him. They are also ‘allowing him’ slots of ‘lecturing segments”

    6. “honour— ahh”. Compliments and respect. Excellent.

    7. “head on collision”. brought the discussion round to the learning point.

    Now if he had lectured all this stuff up to this point, with this particular class, they would be bored and resentful. They would be retaining almost zero. What a contrast in efficacy.

    8. Theres a point when he goes off track a bit, due to student question, to talk about how the King of France is killed from a wood splinter.

    An example of deep knowledge inspiring students. Whilst not essential, its a nice gift to bring to the party.

    9. 16:50 Hes now getting them to analyse pictorial representations of the era. wow- who would have thought…

    10. ‘WAG’- clever link to current day context.

    11. “Im gay”. well thats fine but I always think personal info like that is best left out the classroom- otherwise it gives kids the right to ask such things of their next teacher.
    There were some kids apparently asleep and there was swearing and shouting out going on but I would say that was far better than the other clips I have seen of him.

    It was only half an hour and he did have the benefit of a camera crew and the recorded joust segment done earlier by the kids.

    Nevertheless I would say it was ‘good’ lesson with a challenging class.
    Many kids learnt new things, showed progress and were engaged.

    On the current OFSTED criteria, it couldn’t be better than satisfactory I suspect but in my personal view it would be a ‘good’ with some outstanding features.

    Whoever advised David on his skill set did a good job and full marks to David for taking advice and adapting his approach.

  4. No, being a telly don doesn’t equip you to teach disaffected teenagers BUT being an expert most certainly does help you teach. It was his expertise that led to some moments of pure magic in that lesson. His objectives for that lesson were clear and with some of students he really achieved them. Some of the students found his knowledge fascinating and he used it to help them understand that the past is not an alien land. A massive achievement. If I had got that message through so powerfully in one of my lessons (to even a few of the kids) I would know I had achieved something special. His ‘lecture’ at the start skated close to the line but was actually really good (if not exactly PC) and sharing his family background was crucial to that.
    Starkey showed in that lesson that he was a ‘great teacher’ in the general sense. It was also abundantly clear that he was not a skilled classroom practitioner in that lesson and I’m guessing even more so in other lessons. I didn’t watch the series at all so don’t know if he claimed he didn’t need experience and his expertise was enough. However, it is totally ridiculous to suggest his expertise was what made him weaker. That was his strength. What he lacked was experience, for example reading a classroom and pitching his explanation.

  5. Heather,
    I agree with you on the whole. Its clear his expertise was an asset.

    However I couldn’t agree that his scolding intro in the 1st clip had any merit whatsoever.

    In many schools the kids would simply never ‘forgive him’ for such comments.

    Also, I don’t know if anyone has suggested his expertise made him ‘weaker’ (sorry if I missed that somewhere). In his case it made him a better teacher.

    Having said that I have mentioned before that I have often trained or observed teachers that were very academic and their lack of communication skills hindered their teaching.

    But its a generalisation only. In this case, Starky had expertise AND warm communicative skills. He just needed training and experience. The 2nd clip showed he had teaching potential in my view.

    ps I mean the potential to teach in many schools as opposed to just a 6th Form in a Private School.

  6. I just finished watching Starkey’s Monarchy documentary. I was astounded at the number of times he called female monarchs ‘fat’. Apparently, ‘fat’ queens are not good queens, and ‘fat’ queens are not attractive.

    Class act, David.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: