Jamie Oliver has been making crusade-docs for a while now. They always follow the same formula –
1) Jamie, with remarkable humbleness, sets himself the task of righting an enormous and complex wrong. Childhood obesity, say, or teenage unemployment. He demonstrates, fairly quickly, an understanding of the issue that might embarrass a bright eleven year old, but still reckons that he’ll have a crack at fixing it. Usually, but not always, with the application of olive oil.
2) Jamie, with (olive) oily mateyness, assures a selected group of poor/ignorant/fat/unemployed people that he, the multimillionaire who is getting paid to have this conversation, knows their pain and shares their predicament.
3) Jamie calls someone ‘brother’. This is non-negotiable. It’s written into the contract. Someone has to get called ‘brother’.
4) Jamie is faced with objections to his ideas that, even after they’ve been sympathetically edited for TV, usually appear pretty reasonable, and he does that face where he looks upset. Or, if the show is being sold to the Americans, he cries. This is everyone’s favourite bit.
5) The voiceover wonders whether Jamie can ‘turn it around’.
6) Jamie invents an utterly arbitrary benchmark by which he can decide whether his current quest has succeeded. So, if a thousand people cook a stir-fry, then American obesity is no more.
7) A thousand people cook a fucking stir fry. “One Day Like This” by Elbow plays. Jamie does that big, slightly Downsy, grin of his, and all’s right with the world.
In case I haven’t made this clear, I love Jamie Oliver’s shows. They are somewhere between guilty pleasure and brilliant television. I’m the only person I know who stuck with Jamie’s unemployable chefs thing when it became clear that the first series of The Apprentice on the other side was a far superior program. The reason I volunteered to write this is not, as the blog editor thought, because I’m a teacher so would have an interesting perspective on Jamie’s Dream School, but because I wanted an excuse to watch seven episodes of the big gurning tit trying to fix the world again.
There have been problems, though. Firstly, the production company is a bit less slick than I’m used to. Obviously, nothing Oliver has ever done could reasonably be called a documentary, but the viewer can usually manage to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the shows. In this case, the editing and production crimes have been so jarring and egregious that it’s been impossible to fool myself into thinking I was watching something that wasn’t just a big fat lie. Also, I am a teacher, so it’s been difficult for me to engage with this one and ignore the colossally stupid and offensive premise of it.
So, what’s wrong with the film-making? Well, it assumes the audience are idiots. In the first episode Angelique, a 17 year old who left school without any GCSEs is shown opening her results at home with her mother. Thing is, the only reason that the production company would bother filming this girl is if they already knew she had no GCSEs, otherwise she doesn’t fit their profile. And anyway, she’s seventeen, so she got this letter last year when Jamie was off solving American obesity and crying for his Emmy. And anyway again, pretty much all students go to school to pick up their results now, and so the dramatic moment of opening the envelope has pretty much disappeared. What this means then, is that the production company have asked this young woman, and her mother, to re-enact a scene which probably never happened in the first place. And to pretend, as they do it, that there isn’t a camera man and lighting technician crammed into the corner of their flat. If it is even their flat. If that is even her mother. In any case, the effect of the mother’s wise metaphor to do with planting seeds is diminished by the fact that she’s had about a year to come up with it. Later, in episode two, a fight breaks out between two girls. Unexpectedly, however, the students have the good sense to go outside, where there are fewer things upon which to injure themselves, and where the cameraman can get them in a long shot for maximum impression, before having their unconvincing barney about gay rights, of all things. With these things nagging at you all the time, it’s very difficult to believe any of what is presented in Jamie’s Dream School. It’s possible that this is a personal problem, as I had a very particular reason to notice it. You see, I use the example of classroom documentaries to teach media studies. All you have to do, I tell my classes of enraptured 15 year olds, is place the microphones near the front of the classes where you wish to make the teacher look good and at the back when you want them to look bad. The lessons where the microphone is near the teacher, at the front of the class, will have a soundtrack where the dominant sound is that of the teacher’s voice, sounding all powerful and in control; the lessons where you place the microphone at the back of the room will have the teacher sounding quieter, and therefore weaker, and their voice will be mixed with the background chatter of every classroom, and they will seem less competent. Or ‘dream-y’ I suppose. This is exactly what is done in Jamie’s Dream School, and that’s none too subtle. I can supply teenage media studies students who could tell they were being misled. Anyway, the fact that The Blair Witch project was closer to being a genuine documentary isn’t the biggest problem. No, that would be the basic pointlessness of the whole enterprise.
So what makes the whole thing so pointless? That would be, with admirable literalism, the fact that there is no stated point. Jamie is clear that he doesn’t expect his teachers to follow the national curriculum, which is fine, but there is something he could have taken from the joyless, restrictive, Ofsted-friendly, National-Literacy-Strategy world that he is bemoaning, and that is lesson objectives. Because there is absolutely no objective to this at all. In the opening section Jamie says ‘As long as we engage the kids, that’s all that matters’ but he says it with a sarcastic tone of voice, as if to distance himself from the wishy-washy nature of his intention. Now this is fine, he should distance himself from that, because merely engaging kids is easy. Just give them all Call of fucking Duty and they’ll be engaged. But he doesn’t, at any point, return to the idea of why he’s doing this, and what the hell he hopes to achieve. Are these kids supposed to get better GCSEs at the end of this? Get better jobs? Be better people? No-one knows. All we have is a mildly sarcastic and easily disprovable statement from a TV chef. There is, as yet, no hint as to what this season’s version of a thousand people cooking a stir fry might be, and without that, it all seems a bit redundant.
The original question, as posed by the fat-tongued one himself, was ‘Can dream teachers make a dream school?’ and to this, the answer is obviously yes. Of course teacher quality is important. It’s clearly the most important thing in an educational setting. This is why schools advertise positions and hold interviews, rather than just picking someone at random. And clearly, subject knowledge is important too. Maths teachers need to be able to add up, for example, and it is useful if English teachers can read. It isn’t usually necessary that they be the poet laureate. Indeed, anyone watching Andrew Motion hiss ‘shut up!’ through gritted teeth may start to think it might be better if they aren’t. You see, Jamie’s take on dream teachers is that their dream status is achieved by, basically, being famous. (Gloriously, they mainly need to be famous to Jamie. So Music is being taught by Jazzie B from Soul II Soul, a person who may as well be an actual music teacher to the kids of 2011, but on whom Jamie (age 35) looks with adorable, wet-eyed, fanboy reverence. At one point he got to call Jazzie B ‘brother’ and I think he came in his pants a little bit.)
One thing none of his teachers are is actually teachers. But then of course his teachers aren’t teachers, because this isn’t actually a school; it has none of the things that constitute a school. The pupils aren’t pupils, all being over 16 and not required to attend; the teachers aren’t teachers, none having any training or being required to follow a curriculum and the lessons aren’t lessons, as no planning, marking or moderation of achievement goes on. The thread of the first couple of episodes was that we should differentiate between BAD David Starkey (hilariously described as “top historian” by Jamie Oliver. I wonder how many historians Oliver knows. I’d like him to have used Jack Scarisbrick, if only to see if he was still opposed to abortion after meeting Harlem) and GOOD Jazzie B and Robert Winston, but there was very little reason to draw that distinction. Well, actually, there was a bit of a distinction. David Starkey did attempt to win the class round by personally insulting one of his students (he called a fat kid fat) which wasn’t brilliant classroom management. This sort of ‘teaching’ isn’t exactly rife in ‘non-dream’ schools, though. I go whole days without shouting ‘Scrubbers’ at Y9 girls for example. No, this wasn’t an example of bad teaching; it was an example of David Starkey being a twat. The examples of good teaching that we were given in the first few episodes have been, almost without exception, impossible to replicate in school, or not really anything to do with school. Robert Winston did manage to hold the interest of the kids in biology, but he literally had to chainsaw a pig in half to do it. State secondary schools no longer engage in dissection, not because of some sort of namby-pamby, PC-gawn-mad, elfnsafety nonsense but because they can’t afford to. Buying a pig (and chainsaw) for each Y10 GCSE class would be prohibitively expensive. And actually, there would be a pretty serious health and safety issue, too. Going sailing with Ellen McArthur might be fun, (though it looked like cold hell to me,) but it isn’t education, or at least it isn’t testable, useful education. The spokesman from the CBI isn’t regularly appearing on the Today programme bemoaning the inability of today’s school leavers to correctly tack a foresail. Even the lessons which went badly, which is most of them, were usually dependent on some ridiculously unrealistic activity or resource available only through the aegis of a celebrity teacher and a production company. David Starkey couldn’t get the kids to listen to him even before he called one of them fat, and he had a haul of Anglo-Saxon gold worth many millions of pounds to show them.
Jamie has, by episode four, started referring to the teachers whose lessons aren’t complete car-wrecks as ‘creative’. I can only assume he means ‘creative’ with their definition of teaching. There are some fantastic teaching strategies in Jamie’s Dream School. For example, Andrew Motion’s response to the idea of students not wanting to learn about poetry was to tell half of them to piss off. He was only interested in teaching those that are interested in his subject. Now this is a well known class-room management technique, usually employed by heads of department (it is remarkable how few heads of department teach bottom sets), but is hardly a reasoned response to perceived problems with state education. Oliver is clinging to the successes like Ellen McArthur to a bowsprit (I don’t know much about sailing, I didn’t go to Jamie’s Dream School) and indeed there have been successes. Jazzie B is actually a pretty nifty music teacher, and Rankin’s art class produced happy students and some beautiful work. But here’s the thing, these two were the ones who were most like actual teachers. Jazzie B began his lesson with a set of ground rules and expectations; he knew exactly what he wanted his students to have achieved by the end of the lesson, and he showed them how they were going to get there. Rankin had clear, achievable lesson outcomes, with resources, and he modelled the processes himself. Both of them approached the students with authority but with respect. In short, both of them behaved as teachers are trained to behave. If Jamie has proved anything, it’s that precious few people are instinctive educators, and that it has little to do with subject knowledge. People need to plan, prepare and consider lessons; this is what a PGCE teaches you to do, and it is clearly what Jazzie and Rankin had done. The less successful teachers at Jamie’s Dream School, like Simon Callow, for example, clearly felt that turning up and being brilliant would be enough, and it wasn’t. At all.
And so to the pupils. Jamie introduces them with the line that they all ‘have one thing in common’ which he intends to mean that they all left school with less than five C grades at GCSE. They also have another, slightly more relevant thing in common, which is that they wish to be on the telly and have been chosen by a casting director to do so. They are supposed to be a representative sample of kids who failed to get five GCSE grade Cs, although their failure has been for a number of different reasons – some have been excluded, some were removed from school for other reasons, at least one left to have a baby. They are missing, however the largest and most important group of students who fail to get five GCSE grade Cs; those that aren’t clever enough. These people, and they exist, and in some cases work damn hard to get the Ds that Jamie so cavalierly dismisses, are not featured because they don’t make good telly. Every one of the students has a story about how they didn’t get on with school, and some of them are terrible, if true. It is without question that some students are failed by their schools. If sparky Angelique, who can read a Shakespeare sonnet at first sight and uses her chosen dialect to brilliant, comic, dramatic effect was really made to stand in a corner at the age of 16 then someone seriously ought to get fired, but I don’t know whether to believe her. She obviously wants to be on TV, and she understands the grammar of reality TV exceptionally well, and those without stories don’t get past the audition for this school. In its way, Jamie’s Dream School is every bit as selective as Harrow, only instead of passing an entrance exam and paying prohibitive fees, you have to show a willingness to call Alistair Campbell a prick on TV. Actually, that doesn’t sound that selective, but you know what I mean.
Even if we accept that the students at Dream School all had bad experiences with education and wish to do better, then the problem with this is that Oliver treats these people as an amorphous mass when clearly they have very different issues. Lots of them simply were bored by school, and so misbehaved or didn’t work. There is, just possibly, an argument to be made that these students would benefit from a different approach to education, though it isn’t an approach that has been thought through by Oliver or any of his production team, but lots of them have completely different problems. One girl was removed by her mother from school at fourteen and sent ‘home’ to Bangladesh for two years. This is a serious and growing problem among specific social groups, and one which affects the educational and life chances of a growing number of British girls. It isn’t going to be solved, or in any way addressed, by locking some kids in a biosphere for a couple of days. Neither is teen pregnancy, or bullying. One girl became a school-phobic (yes, there really is a name for that) because the whole experience was too loud and aggressive for her. How she copes with being in a class where at least fifty percent of the kids are from the ‘loud and aggressive’ camp hasn’t really been covered.
Ultimately, this has been a failure on almost every level. It doesn’t work as a documentary, it has nothing to say about education, or about teenagers, or about teachers, and it isn’t especially entertaining. If I were an Ofsted inspector, this’d get a resounding grade four (unsatisfactory) and would pretty quickly get put into special measures.
There’s an important post-script to all this. Jamie’s Dream School is predicated on the idea that teachers need no training, and that subject knowledge is all that’s important. Chillingly, these ideas chime rather too neatly with those of Michael Gove, the education secretary. He’s the one who recently said that he’d rather a teacher with a degree from Oxbridge and no teacher training than one from a ‘lesser’ university (the ones he probably still calls polys) with a PGCE. He’s also said that ex-squaddies could go straight into being teachers with no further training. He’s, you know, a cretin. But he gets to make these decisions, and he likes this stuff. He also likes not paying for it, though, so there’ll be fewer biospheres and more classes of fifty being inexpertly lectured by a teacher who may have PTSD. It isn’t a pretty picture. I suppose if, just once, I get to chainsaw a pig in half in front of a group of screaming thirteen year olds, then it’ll be worth it.
CaulorLime is a teacher.
Jamie’s Dream School is on Channel 4 tonight.