My Dream School

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. Why did you have to do this? I’ve been such a fan, ever since the beginning. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have got into cooking, and maybe even food, if it hadn’t been for the Naked Chef. Your books are still the ones I turn to most often, I’ve enjoyed every one of your TV shows, and I even downloaded that Tim Kay song from iTunes (catchy on first listen, irritating ever after). Your School dinners campaign was clearly heartfelt, and though I don’t really want my £30 main course cooked by someone with an ASBO at Fifteen, the concept is great, and you only have to look at the number of copycat presenters and programmes to see that you already have a legacy to be proud of. I know that the ‘Dream School’ project hasn’t been dreamed up by you, and that you’ve probably got nothing but good intentions, but it’s such a bad idea. It’s simplistic, patronising and is likely to do the very opposite of what it’s supposed to achieve.

Assuming that I’m not now talking direct to Jamie, and just in case the paragraph above makes little sense, I’m talking about the new C4 programme called ‘Dream School’, in which philanthropic Jamie states that ‘I was rubbish in School…’ (we’re not told why, though it could be for any number of reasons), and ‘…so it got me thinking: what would a dream School be like?’ Well apparently, a dream School includes the following:

1. Children who are very difficult to teach, and have been essentially ‘failed’ by the current system. The ‘system’ presumably means the Government, Department for Education, the State School system, the Schools themselves and the teachers within those Schools.

2. A selection of ‘star’ teachers, who all happen to be from TV-land. We’ve got Alistair Campbell in to teach politics, David Starkey to teach History, Rolf Harris in to teach Art (did no-one think this was going a bit far?) and Ellen McArthur in to teach ‘expeditions’. Not sure I remember any double lessons in that subject when I was at School, but presumably they felt that she looks so much like a 14-year old boy that she wouldn’t look too out of place in Jamie’s academy.

The tag-line for the show is: ‘can star teachers make star pupils?’, which is a pretty good soundbite. I don’t want to get ahead of myself (and I’ve done a little cheating by reading Campbell’s blog), but I suspect the programme will start with all the teachers struggling because these are difficult pupils, we’ll have some heartwarming moments where the celebrity teachers get through to some of the pupils on at least some levels, and we’ll end up having not made any real difference, but the teaching profession as a whole will get some praise because some celebs have realised that it’s quite difficult teaching young people who don’t want to learn.

Here are the problems I have with this programme:

1. These people aren’t star teachers. They are a collection of people who do other jobs, and the only thing that they have in common is that they are good in their field, and they are famous for being on TV. I’m not sure how David Starkey (an engaging presenter of reasonably high-brow History programmes on channel 4) can ever hope to be described as a star teacher. I’m also not sure why any teenagers with a history of dysfunctional behaviour should be turned on to History simply because it’s now taught by a middle-aged man from a TV programme they’ve never watched, who has never been a teacher.

2. Alistair Campbell mentions in his most recent blog that the only time he got any ‘cred’ with the pupils was when they found out about his erotic story-writing past. I’m glad he’s made this breakthrough. Presumably we just need to get a couple of slappers from television X, and we’re bound to gain a whole load more ‘cred’ with these children. Maybe Jenna James can drop by for a seminar on Whiggism in 1770s Lancashire?

3. The whole premise of the programme is that these pupils are being failed by their Schools, and specifically by their teachers. Jamie’s own admission that ‘I was rubbish at School’ really means that ‘I was failed by my teachers at School’. If this wasn’t the case, surely the way to solve this problem is not to bus in a whole load of better (celebrity) teachers. There are poor teachers in every School, and there are excellent teachers in every School. The pupils he has chosen are amongst some of the most challenging individuals, and to suggest that it’s only the quality of teaching they receive that needs to be addressed is simplistic.

4. What’s next, Jamie’s dream hospital? This is a sure-fire winner of a show where we visit some of the most under-pressure hospitals in the country. We note that some people are ‘rubbish at hospital’, and some people are so rubbish they’re literally dying. Never mind, all we need to do is to get in some ‘star’ doctors, because they surely must make for ‘star’ patients. Get rid of the doctors that are currently treating our patients, and bring in a few people from channel 4 (Noel Edmonds, Jeff Stelling and the cast of shameless) to cure all. This sounds ridiculous, but it’s a pretty close analogy.

5. Shows like this are nothing but education-lite. The real problems are so much more complex, and of course they start at home. Are we products of nature or nurture? Well, surely it’s both, so much of the responsibility must lie with the parents. I think it’s unlikely that we’ll get any parental replacement during this series, but I know what most people would choose if offered bad parents or bad teachers. Responsibility for education should be shared between parents, the children themselves, the Schools, the teachers and the Government. We all have an important role to play.

6. If the show really wanted to look at the specific effects of teachers (which research shows can be as much as 4-fold in terms of pupil progress) what they could have done was to seek out those teachers that are genuinely inspirational. These are the ‘star’ teachers, and they can be found pretty easily. Just go to any School in the country and ask the pupils who they’d recommend. If every teacher in every School was as good as the best 20%, we’d probably make a massive difference. We could certainly see from a programme like this whether there is such a massive ‘teacher effect’. For the record, I’m sure that there is, but channel 4 have decided to go down the ratings route rather than the educational route. They could have made a really interesting intelligent piece of TV, the effects of which could have resonated within the world of education in order to attract and produce effective teachers. Instead they have pandered to the maxim that celebrities guarantee ratings.

Jamie – please go back to doing what you know.