Dabbler Review – Jamie’s Dream School, Channel 4

The education system is failing our kids, says Jamie Oliver. Well few would disagree with that, but what to do, Jamie, what to do?

The answer, of course, is to take 20 GCSE drop-outs and give ‘em a crash course at Jamie’s Dream School (Channel 4, Wedneday 9pm), where they will be instructed by what the voiceover describes as “some of the most brilliant people in Britain” just as Rolf Harris hoves into view, making those odd little Tourettian didgeridoo noises that seem to haunt his every waking moment.

In fact, Rolf turns out to be the most successful teacher of the episode – but then he’s got Art, which is always going to be easier than a booklearnin’ subject. Easier that is, not easy. The kids are an unruly mob of smart-arses, chatterboxes and skivers, handpicked to drive any would-be John Keating from bright-eyed idealism straight to grim, alcoholic disillusionment without passing Go or even the two-and-a-half terms of paperwork and parents’ evenings that usually do it for state school teachers.

The pupils are not, we are repeatedly reminded in Jamie’s stirring pep talks, thick; they have been let down. Certainly Angelique, a sassy lass with a gangsta voice, is not thick. She’s not wasting this opportunity by hiding meekly at the back of the class; with a bravura acting performance she maximises her exposure on reality television, which is, after all, the great 21st century hope for all those who can’t be bothered to work for a living.

Jamie might have thought that the kids would be in for a shock: the shock of great education. In fact, it was the teachers who were in for it, as one by one the kids picked them off. Simon Callow, boosting Shakespeare, got tetchy and inches away from sarcasm. Robert Winston (Science) tried to play it nice and then made everyone puke by, unbelievably, chainsaw-massacring a bloody great pig carcass, spreading its guts and goo around in a porcine horrorshow that had no discernible educational value for anyone but was clearly a lot of fun for Robert.

The kids’ biggest scalp was historian David Starkey. A nervous, unpractised teacher, he committed a terrible gaffe by blurting at a (for once, blameless) pupil “You’re so fat you can hardly move.” We all gasped, and cringed. The boy in question was justifiably furious; Starkey made things worse by not taking him aside at the end of the class to apologise.

So there it was – a stupid, thoughtless insult compounded by cowardice. Now can we move on, lessons learnt? No we can’t because, egregiously, the incident became the dramatic centrepiece of the episode, with Starkey cast as the villain. (Read this predictably point-missing review in the Guardian).

Well of course Starkey is the villain: Starkey is a right-winger. Starkey has old-fashioned views and believes in clear boundaries and discipline, and thinks that ADD is not a disorder but “a description of a whole generation.” Starkey is the odd one out in Jamie Oliver’s ‘wicked’ Dream School staff line-up. Starkey is many things but he is not a secondary school teacher.

Which brings us to the big, stinking lie at the heart of this misconceived programme: the conceit – breathtaking in its arrogance – that a bunch of Jamie’s celebs can succeed where professional teachers have failed by simply turning up and ‘giving it a go’. Now Jamie Oliver has got it right before – his Fifteen restaurant project was a triumph. And he’s got it partly-right with the Victorian-style do-goodery of School Dinners. But Dream School looks like a horrible misstep. What is he trying to prove? That the celeb magic wand can fix the education system? A far more worthwhile programme would have taken 20 bad kids and had them taught by some proper, experienced, brilliant actual teachers, to prove that there is hope if the job is done properly. Instead, we got Rolf Harris and coming up, God help us, Alastair Campbell and Mary Beard, the latter a monstrously arrogant classicist with views on 9/11 so offensive that she even stunned Kirsty Young into silence when repeating them on Desert Island Discs.

I may be judging this too soon. Perhaps over coming episodes the lesson really will be that teaching kids who have no conception of how to sit in a classroom and just listen for five minutes is no picnic. Perhaps it will get serious about the state education system.

But I don’t hold out much hope. A lot of time was given to Henry, black sheep of a nice, wealthy middle-class family that loves him. This, presumably, was to show that privately-educated kids can also fail, and thus to pre-empt any prejudice we might have that leaving school with zero qualifications is primarily a problem for children of broken homes in areas of high welfare-dependency, where the comp school staff are not teachers so much as demoralised zoo-keepers, stuck in a system that has long been ruled by a vacuous, unchallengeable progressive ideology where competition and individual success and anything resembling ‘discipline’ are to be crushed; and where kids should be allowed to decide their own lessons and form their own ‘equally valid’ views based on rap music or just televisual nothingness; where graffiti and Raphael are as good as each other; where every lesson is aimed at the Platonic Ideal of the slowest conceivable student; and meanwhile, the gulf  between the local comp and nearest private school widens and widens until no parent with the money can possibly NOT choose the latter and still sleep at night.

But no, those are the sorts of cranky, archaic views held by David Starkey. David Starkey thinks that our state system has failed our children because it has failed, first and foremost, to teach them how to listen. David Starkey thinks we might actually need to try to halt rather than accelerate the descent into a two-nation abyss, where going to a state school is a lifelong handicap. And David Starkey called someone a fatty, so David Starkey is a villain.

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20 thoughts on “Dabbler Review – Jamie’s Dream School, Channel 4

  1. davidkstead@hotmail.com'
    March 3, 2011 at 11:35

    Right on man – top piece of critical prose…….Starkey rules!

  2. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    March 3, 2011 at 11:36

    Hear hear Brit – brilliant stuff. The whole project is totally misconceived from top to bottom. Next week (I can reveal) there’s a hilarious attempt to re-educate Starkey – needless to say he runs rings round the idiot headmaster and remains uncowed. The question is why did someone of Starkey’s stature get involved in this pig’s breakfast? Could even he have succumbed to the new religion of Celebrity?

    • Brit
      March 3, 2011 at 13:13

      Starkey succumbed a while ago didn’t he? He does love to play the panto villain, mind – see his performances on Question Time.

  3. Worm
    March 3, 2011 at 12:02

    excoriating stuff Brit! I was shocked at the aggresion shown by the pupils, and their constant demands to be ‘shown respect’ by everyone

  4. jameshamilton1968@gmail.com'
    March 3, 2011 at 13:26

    Loud cheers, Brit, for your comments about Mary Beard – I’ve always felt she got away with that rather. David Starkey calling someone a fatty… well, that would explain one of the odder moments of my 2010, which involved him thrusting a plate of pizza at me across a table and my trying to push it back at him.

    I helped run homework clubs for seven years in a deprived ward in London – younger kids than these, the 7-12s – and can attest to two quite different things. One, the aggression (half bricks, rotten food, and on one occasion, we thought, probably teargas, that from an older brother). Two, what can happen to a young person when they cotton onto something. Some of my old charges are Oxbridge and Russell Group now.

    • Gaw
      March 3, 2011 at 13:51

      Fantastic stuff, James. And Brit, of course.

  5. edward@teachable.net'
    March 3, 2011 at 14:04

    Yes, I think your penultimate paragraph is spot on – the ‘head-teacher’ at Dream School is so caught up in the system that taught these kids they are equals that he can’t see why the teachers need an iota of respect.

    I’ve quoted you in my post on Dream School.

    • Brit
      March 3, 2011 at 14:13

      Thanks Edward. Yes they could easily have put Starkey’s gaffe in its context – the thoughtless blurt of an inexperienced teacher with nerves. But instead they used video replay to eviscerate him while passing happily over the behaviour of the pupils.

      Who’d be a teacher, eh?

  6. tanith@telegraphy.co.uk'
    March 3, 2011 at 14:09

    You’re right, Brit, the arrogance really is breathtaking. Jamie Oliver refers to his celebrities as “brilliant teachers”. What is he basing that on? They might be world leaders in their own fields, but they are not experts in a classroom.

    I worked as a teacher in a school specialising in pupils just like this, and I can honestly say that our lessons were more interesting, exciting, interactive and educational than any of the ones we are seeing here. Like you say, “A far more worthwhile programme would have taken 20 bad kids and had them taught by some proper, experienced, brilliant actual teachers, to prove that there is hope if the job is done properly.”

    The other major problem with the show, as Rolf Harris points out, is that there are simply too many of them in one room. No school would inflict a class like that on a teacher. To expect people with no teaching experience to handle them is ridiculous, even with the cameras in the room!

  7. sophieking@btinternet.com'
    Sophie King
    March 3, 2011 at 14:34

    Mary Beard actually is a teacher – albeit of university students rather than schoolkids. Whatever you think of her 9/11 views, it will be interesting to see if she can handle the class better than those we saw last night.

  8. tanith@telegraphy.co.uk'
    March 3, 2011 at 14:46

    There is a world of difference between teaching university students and disillusioned teenagers. My money is on the teenagers.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      March 3, 2011 at 14:55

      Yes – one of the more acute observations made by Oliver was that these celeb intellectuals are used to audiences that hang on their every word…. bit of a shock to the system to get the teen treatment.

  9. tanith@telegraphy.co.uk'
    March 3, 2011 at 15:21

    These sorts of programmes really irritate me. What is Oliver actually hoping to achieve? It is such an artificial environment; even if they did find something that interested them, there is no way that any of them would the return to formal education as model students. Is he hoping to reform the “little shits”, as he called them, or the education system. Either way, he won’t do it through getting celebrities to humiliate themselves.

    On another note, those children, in a secondary school environment, would be far worse that you are witnessing on TV. They have, it seems, chosen to be there, and they are all behaving much better than usual because of the camera. They know their parents are watching, for a start! No desks have been thrown, there has been precious little swearing or violence, and they are actually trying to engage with the subjects.

    Rant over.

  10. owen.polley@talk21.com'
    March 3, 2011 at 15:26

    You’ve absolutely spiked this Brit. I can only hope that the programme’s unwitting message is that most teachers do an extraordinary job in extremely challenging circumstances, with fewer and fewer levers of discipline. And that a bunch of celebs, academics and celeb academics, however hand-picked, will always be hopelessly out of its depth in a classroom.

    Gareth Malone, the choirmaster chap, also did an ‘I know best’ programme about education and ended up looking rather silly as a consequence. I’m sure Channel 4 will try to work this round to some type of happy ending, but it’s a desperately misguided, patronising premise.

    • Brit
      March 3, 2011 at 15:39

      Yes Owen – that’s the unwitting message so some good might come of it in the end.

      The witting message – the premise – is, in a nutshell: “the kids don’t like the actual curriculum and real teachers, so instead of teaching them how to learn, let’s give pander to them by giving them a dumbed-down curriculum and celebrity teachers – and if they don’t like that either, let’s apologise to them.”

  11. fchantree@yahoo.co.uk'
    Gadjo Dilo
    March 3, 2011 at 18:45

    Yes, very well put. Not being able to see the programme in question, having been myself very well educated at a comp (many years ago), and having no kids that need educating, I can’t really comment further.

  12. tobyash@hotmail.com'
    Toby Ash
    March 3, 2011 at 19:06

    Excellent review Brit.

  13. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    john halliwell
    March 3, 2011 at 20:23

    I got this arse about face: missed the programme, read the review. But the review of the programme I haven’t seen was such a joy to read I’ll probably tune in next week to see if what I missed this week I should have aimed to miss next week, or this week as it will be when we reach next week.

  14. Anthonywindram@yahoo.co.uk'
    March 5, 2011 at 06:07

    Such an evisceration I’m almost tempted to try and download the series though it’s the sort of dreck BBC America always delights in buying for the US market.

    Particularly galling that it’s Jamie Oliver, a personality who has boasted about never having read a book before, fronting this.

  15. junemoss454@btinternet.com'
    March 10, 2011 at 13:15


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