Bruce’s Britton

I’m no social or cultural historian, as if you hadn’t noticed already, but I do take an interest in fashions and fads; in particular the question of whether the sort of fads that seem to grip the nation are dictated by what people actually want to wear, watch or listen to, or whether there’s some kind of conspiracy by higher powers to see what people can be made to wear, watch or listen to.  I can understand the popularity (past or present) of X Factor, Downton Abbey, Masterchef, Ugg Boots, Take That in boy and man incarnation, jeans tucked into boots (Uggs or otherwise), small plates of food and pop-up restaurants and cinemas.  I can even just about comprehend the very short lived fad of staying up half the night to watch some hatchet-faced Scottish Grandmother win a Curling medal at the Winter Olympics (it was only a one-night thing, after all).  I’m not sure why my ‘Dead Pool’, in which one predicts which celebrity deaths will occur over the next twelve months has not caught on yet, but it’s got time to become a fad that’ll grip the nation, and my next blog will feature the crop for 2012.

The latest TV fad seems to be the travel + food-umentary, and it looks as though everyone’s cottoned on to this sure-fire ratings winner.  The Hairy Bikers, Oz and James, Jamie Oliver, Michael Portillo, Ade Edmondson, Rick Stein, some posh twit mates of Hugh F-W, Rory McGrath and Paddy McGuinness and the soap dodger from single-serious curate’s egg ‘One Man and his Camper-van’.

The premise is quite simple, and by this, I mean cheap.  It involves a man, or maybe a couple of men, or sometimes even three men, driving around Britain, meeting local people, usually doing a bit of cooking along the way and generally reminding us what a great place this island nation is to live.  The rules seems fairly simple, and consist of the following:

1.  A regional stereotype must be wheeled out at every opportunity.
2.  The vehicle in which the man/men travel around the country must be ‘vintage’, ideally caravan/campervan.
3.  Any cooking must be done on location, ideally using a mini-stove from said campervan.
4.  (optional) – some kind of challenge might be involved, presumably to add a competitive edge.  This might involve the protagonists needing to cook only food that they can catch/barter/work for/steal.  It is never explained why this should be necessary.

A perfect example of how one can cram all three of the above rules into just 5 minutes of television came from the truly awful ‘Ade in Britain’, starring Ade Edmondson.  This show seems to have been put together simply because someone thought the title was good, and there’s only one famous Ade out there of course, which at least keeps him in work.  One stop on Ade’s trip was Morecambe.  He pulled up in his Mini Cooper, complete with small cavannette/stove being dragged behind.  He visited a local man that made potted shrimps, obtained the recipe, re-created it from his very own camper-stove before feeding the fruits of his labour to four buck-toothed men from the George Formby appreciation society (we knew this because they each had a ukelele); all this took place in the shadow of the Eric Morecambe statue.

Why has there been a sudden explosion of TV shows of this kind?  Has there been an outcry from the public, demanding a fusion of game-show, travel and al fresco culinary travails?  Or have a group of media moguls suddenly come to the same conclusion that this is what our screens have been missing?  Or are they just cheap, and require little or no budget/planning?  I think I know which one it is.

Hugh F-W seems to have had the best idea, in that he doesn’t even appear in his latest culinary road-trip.  Instead, three snaggle-haired photogenic posh-boys hammer round the South West in (you guessed it) a camper-van, with no money, eating only food they have earned, before cooking it all up on a ring-burner in the back of their vehicle.  Hugh merely provides a voice-over, and even that looks to associate him a little too closely with this rot.

I await the next installation of the format with baited breath.  ‘Bruce’s Britton’ perhaps, featuring Bruce Forsyth and Fern Britton.  Bruce and Fern drive around the country in a 1973 Austin Allegro, compete with the sort of caravanette you used to win on Bullseye.  They visit artisan food producers, but can only eat the food if they manage an arm-wrestle win.  Voice-over by Vernon Kay.  I’d watch it.  Wouldn’t you?


All about the parents?

I’m afraid it’s Jamie’s dream School again this week, so for those who are bored of my rantings about this particular piece of water-cooler TV, there’s no need to read on any further. The programme has turned out pretty much as expected, and I’m not surprised that the star of the show is David Starkey, a man who looks and acts more like his ‘dead ringers’ cariacature every time he appears. Watching him, kid gloves and all, handling the Staffordshire hoard like a newborn child was to observe someone totally in love with his subject; he then looks expectantly up at the class of brats in front of him, only to note the look of total disgust on their faces. This was sad, though hardly unexpected. He’d have been better off unveiling a bottle of 20/20, which would at least have gotten their attention.

But I’ve already said enough about the failings of the programme. I’m more interested in the enormous elephant in the classroom that seems to be continually ignored by Jamie, and all involved with dream School. We are told that these pupils have been failed by ‘the system’. We’re never quite told what ‘the system’ is, only that it has failed these children. The reasoning goes thus:

1. The pupils all have no GCSE qualifications.

2. The pupils are clearly quite clever.

3. Therefore, the teaching they received was not good enough. They weren’t engaged, enthused or educated.

Conclusion: the pupils have been failed by their Schools, and by their teachers within those Schools.

I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but here’s an inescapable truth: there are good teachers in every School and there are bad teachers in every School. It’s true that teacher effects dwaf whole School effects, such that you are far better off having the best teacher in a lousy School than having a feeble teacher in a superb establishment. But clearly these pupils haven’t just had the bad teachers. The main problem with them is that they are unteachable. They are feral. They have never been taught how to behave. The general rules of life do not apply to these pupils. And whose fault is this? I’d absolve the pupils from blame, just as one absolves a non-housetrained dog from peeing on the carpet; it simply doesn’t know any better. Surely the majority of fault lies with the parents?

Malcolm Gladwell notes that pupils at high-achieving Schools don’t actually outstrip pupils at low achieving Schools by that much during term time i.e. the time that they actually spend at School. Instead, their education develops far more during the holidays, and this is where they move ahead of the low achieving pupils. During this time they are encouraged to read by their parents, to take an interest in sport, music, film, theatre, to debate, discuss and to challenge the world around them. They are not allowed to spend long days on the xbox and eating junk food. This is a generalisation of course, but it’s the general point I wish to make.

On this week’s episode, we were told that one of the pupils had grown up without a dad, had been kicked out by his mother and was living in a council flat on his own. The only time we were treated to a look inside, he was getting hammered with his mates on what looked like cheap schnapps. Failed by the system? Only if the system gave birth to him.

We can talk all we like about what needs to change with education, from curriculum reform and studying Latin (Toby Young) to discipline in the classroom (Katharine Birbalsingh), but why do we never talk about good parents and bad parents, and the effects of parents, rather than the effects of School and teachers. Young people need to be aspirational; they need to feel as though they can make a success of things, and they need the love, nurture and time investment from fantastic parents. How about Jamie’s dream parent School – get the parents of these youngsters with potential and teach them how to do a good job?

Just a thought, channel 4?

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.