Saturday, March 12, 2011


I've been a dedicated viewer of Jamie Oliver's new reality show about schools. The premise is the producers recruit twenty kids who left school with no qualifications to speak of, then expose them to teaching from some of the best people in the country. So Jamie teaches them Home Economics, Dr David Starkey (of whom more later) does History, and so on. The only professional teacher is the head, who is cast in a supervising role.

Virtually none of the things teachers tell me about in their experiences is in the show. People can teach in the way they like and what they choose, rather than conform to lesson plans with learning and curriculum objectives set by government. OFSTED is not a factor, naturally. So a dream school is exactly what this is, there can be no other school like it in the country.

The teenagers, some excluded for "behavioural issues", misbehave in a really epic way. They talk when the teachers are speaking and their attention wanders to the point of rudeness. Actually it's what these people are - they're just rude, in a basic sense that implies they don't even know they're being insulting. And they don't seem to have stop buttons. A fight nearly broke out in politics (teacher, Alastair Campbell) over someone's sexual identity.

Starkey made a bad mistake during his first history lesson when he abandoned teaching and dared suggest a pupil was fat. The lad is overweight, but then of course Starkey had lost his authority and the lesson degenerated into name-calling. Starkey flounced for a bit but was talked back by Jamie Oliver. I didn't have a lot of time for Starkey, who cultivates his own special brand of rudeness, but I have less now. The programme shows how he can give it but not take it, which is illuminating about Starkey but not about education in any real sense.

Nevertheless some critics have been shocked by the way the argument from the teaching pro in the "school"was that Starkey had to apologise. I seem to remember teachers being incredibly rude to me and others at school and the lesson you were learning was to take it. But in the event both student and teacher apologised to one another, respect was re-established and Starkey did better in his second lesson at holding their attention. Perhaps we should respect the "respect agenda".

The teaching is on surer ground when largely bogus claims of creativity are entertained. The brilliant fashion photographer Ian Rankin took pictures of the kids, which some of them then cut up. Funnily enough there were no fashion photography classes at their previous schools. Jazzie B (Soul 2 Soul) did the music class. Jazzie B did not tolerate misbehaviour and the class was a big success. Jamie's Home Economic class seemed to go down well, but I am deeply suspicious of the editing in these things. Unfortunately there are very few jobs available in cutting up pictures of yourself, unless you're Picasso or Lady Gaga. Rolf Harris taught Art. I wish Rolf had taught me Art. Some of the kids did amazing pictures, but Rolf seemed tortured that somehow he had missed the mark.

In just the way Location Location is not really about property so much as the people buying it, Jamie's Dream School is really about the people in this odd situation. Will any of these kids re-enter education, this time prepared to knuckle down, get some real qualifications and compete in today's frightening job market? It seems unlikely. I reckon some will conclude its better to stay home and compete on the Playstation.

I watched all this in the week I stuck my own toe back in education, heading down to Hayes secondary school to mentor 12 year-olds doing BBC School Report. I went on two days and talked to two hour-long classes. The children were immaculately behaved and were obviously interested - I didn't get through my presentation on either occasion because there were so many good questions that sidetracked us into great discussions. The teachers I met were motivated and seemed highly professional. The whole feel of the place was of a set-up aimed at getting the best from everyone. I don't know how representative Hayes is of the average establishment, but it all seemed a long way from "Jamie's Dream School". At the end of one class they all wrote little notes on Post Its about how much they'd enjoyed it. Reader, I'm a hard man at times, but I nearly cried.

No comments: