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.