Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: March 2011

‘Children should run everything’ says person paid to say children should run things.

The world of politics was rocked today by claims by the Children’s’ Commissioner  that children should be in charge of everything.
‘It makes perfect sense,’ says the former Director of Learning and Culture at Gateshead Council. ‘Children are essentially just as good as adults, and anyone that says that they are in some way subordinate to them is an enemy of children, and we don’t want to be enemies of children do we? Do we?
Asked what implications this might have in practical terms, she elaborated.
‘Well, for a start, I’d bring the under twelves into the Crown Court- throw out all those dusty old men with their frightfully ageist views, and get some innocent, honest common sense into the courts. Of course, they’d have to have some time in the afternoon for naps…but there’s no change there, eh?!’
‘After that, we could get to work on the real problems- adults in politics; we could have all the MPs replaced with regional Youth Mayors, who would listen to the people who really matter- the children- before making unbiased, careful decisions that would represent  everyone, not just a handful of geriatric pedagogues. Next we could have children panels selecting CEOs of national companies, and designing bridges and ships and space rockets and that. How hard can it be?’
But it doesn’t end there. ‘Eventually I plan to apply to the European Court of Human Rights to force every lecturer in every University to resign, to be replaced by a five-year old called Darren, who’s got some really, really interesting things to say about Call of Duty: Black Ops. Once we’ve done that, we can move on to those other bastions of discrimination- research laboratories. Have you seen CERN? Not a toddler in sight. How on Earth do they expect children to be effectively represented in particle physics? It’s disgusting. Just because they can’t count past twenty yet, doesn’t mean they have nothing to add to the debate about the existence of the Higgs- Boson.’
Ms A’s latest announcement comes after her recent comments in the press that children should be part of the selection and recruitment process of new teachers, including grading lessons and forming part of the interview panels. Teachers were last night said to be ‘unsurprised’ by the news:
‘These figures are a damn disgrace!’
‘To be frank, it’s just another day, another shitty dollar for us,’ said Mr Mendicant, a year 8 Science teacher. ‘Everyone and his donkey has a crack at how they think we should teach- in that respect, the teaching profession is not unlike a Rubik’s Cube left alone in a room full of bored neurotics. Nobody can keep their hands off it, and everyone thinks they know how to solve it. It was only a matter of time before someone thought that kids could tell us how to do it better than we can. After all, what do we know? We’ve only got degrees, years of life experience and a professional qualification. Of course an overconfident ten year-old can tell us how to do it, or what kind of skill set would be required to do the job well. Of course they can.’
Asked if this attitude was simply cynicism, and that children could offer a unique perspective as to what makes a good teacher and a good lesson, Mr Mendicant rolled his eyes so far back they practically detached from the optic nerve. ‘Yes, that’s an excellent point. Except for two things: 1. We were all children too, so actually we already possess their perspective, only we’ve added life experience to their incessant, egoistic demands; 2. What they like might not actually be relevant to what makes a good teacher, like being strict and making them work hard.’
‘So actually, that’s not really a good point after all. Now you’ll have to excuse me, but I have my annual pay review in a few minutes with my year 9 class, and I’m hoping I played them enough Doctor Who and violent pornographic cartoons to qualify for a point on the salary scale. Wish me luck.’
Your new Minister for Education.
The outspoken public figure has recently defended herself against claims that she is being paid not unadjacent to £138,000 per year for what is essentially a non-job. ‘No, no, no, no,’ she said. ‘That’s not true at all. I’m paid three grand short of the Prime Minister to tell people that children should run everything. See? That’s a proper job. Well worth what I imagine is approximately three times your salary.’
‘Teaching? Now thats a non-job. Anyone can do it. Why, my two year old Springer Spaniel could probably deliver a decent three-part lesson on the Tudors. In fact…that’s an idea.’
A Facebook site was created last week, thought to be the work of a rag-tag band of disgruntled teachers, called, ‘If children are such f***ing experts, why don’t they run the Office of the Children’s Commissioner ? Just a thought.’ The Office was unavailable for comment, as everyone was watching Charlie and Lola and sewing sequins onto their Stetsons in preparation for an early evening birthday party.
Maggie Atkinson is thirteen and three quarters at heart.

Jamie’s Dream School 4: Classical Gas

How do we feel about this, apart from indifferent?

Blimey, when did Poetry join falconry and fletchery as subjects of yesteryear? I mean, everyone knows it’s a vaguely doomed ambition, intimately linked with unemployablity and a life of wretchedness, but it’s always been like that, indeed, it’s part of its charm. It’s edifying to reflect that as poetry has apparently melted from the GCSE syllabus, it has been replaced by such stalwart qualifications as Media Studies, BTECs worth a wheel barrow of GCSEs, and Citizenship. I’m no economist, but I suspect someone, somewhere has been sold a bag of magic beans in exchange for the family cow.

I mention this because the focus of this week’s chef-inspired pedagogy (chefagogy?) is the lost art of the classics: or Latin and Poetry at least. Once again, Professor Jamie of Oliver brings in his JCBs to plant tulips, in the form of the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. I’ve written before about this, but this is the flaw in the whole diamond: the assumption that if only teachers were world-leaders then the children would ignite like barbecue briquettes with inspiration. Alas, alas, this is not the case. Even the dullest of blades emerging from the teacher training college still knows more than their charges about the Tudors or Pythagoras; the problem is that many of them don’t want to learn. And have you ever tried to make someone do something they really didn’t want to? Try it sometime.

Jamie also repeats his earlier mantra. ‘I’ll fucking BATTER you in this classroom…’ Sorry, that was Harlem again, the resident Goddess of Anger. She does have a lot of anger. Fortunately she knows what to do with it, externalising it the instant it appears in her consciousness, lest a single unprocessed note of her interior monologue go unexpressed for public consumption. And, I think, we’re all the better for it.

No, Jamie’s mantra was ‘The practical stuff can work,’ meaning that anything a bit more hands-on seems a sweeter spoonful to swallow than the more medicinal, academic subjects. Or, as he says it, ‘There’s been some success with more academic subjects, using a more practical approach.’ I don’t want to infer too much, but one of the dangers for the non-teaching specialist is to imagine that how we like to learn is how everyone likes to learn. Jamie’s an intelligent, inspired man, who has obviously excelled in the physical world of catering. The danger is to assume that everyone else will enjoy the kind of activities he does. I mean, it’s very in vogue these days to encourage group work because it encourages ‘collaborative learning’ and ‘communal thinking’- forgive me while I dry-retch my Skittles and Polenta. When I was at school, group work was, for me, a Hell of wasted time, squabbling, and settling for the lowest common denominator. Usually involving some farting mentalist trying to brand me with a soldering iron. Don’t talk to me about group work.

‘My manor, my rules. Got it?’

Some of the kids, like Danielle (who I might add is rapidly becoming my heroine of the series- I’m tempted to open a library wing in her name) clearly prefer working in quiet environments, independently. It was simultaneously heart warming and tragic to see her sitting on the steps outside her classroom consumed with agony at seeing another lesson get flushed down the Johnson by mouth-breathing morons with megaphones. Or as she put it, ‘Jesus.’ Jesus indeed.

Poor old Mary Beard (which sounds like a Leonard Cohen lay, or an East End shanty) had my every sympathy. She, like many trainee teachers (and let’s not forget that’s exactly what these Titans of their field are, despite their Leviathan qualifications) she entered brimming with enthusiasm and the desire to inspire, only to see her golden sunbeams of Roman enthusiasm thin and dim to nothing against their collective indifference. Some pointless, petty disagreement had been wrestled in to the room before the class began, and ended with Jamal flouncing out, butch as Disco, from the classroom, wiping a tear from his eye while he watched Tara burn.

It was too much and, as Jamie’s voice over intoned, ‘Word trickles down the corridor that things have broken down in Mary’s classroom.’ Given that there are twenty students in the school (and incidentally, not all of them seem to attend every lesson), and that the place is wired for sound like Winston Smith’s khazi, I can’t imagine it’s very hard for word to trickle anywhere. So what Unstoppable Force, what Educational Fury is unleashed to lay waste to a third of the Earth? What Godzilla slouches towards the mayhem, what Jungian emblem of order and retribution incarnates in response to the anarchy?

You guessed it: D’Abbs. And boy, is he mad at them. ‘I’m really disappointed with you,’ he says, as they all p**s their collective knickers in fear. The class look at him as if they had sneezed him into a handkerchief. One of the unlovelier members of the class showed him how cowed and respectful they felt. ‘Excuse me, but you don’t even know what it was about, so how can you say you’re disappointed in us?’ He really puts the fear of God into them. But D’Abbs has an ace up his sleeve. ‘I feel let down,’ he says, and a chill runs down my spine as I am reminded of Leonidas and Morgan Freeman, rolled into one.

D’Abbs confronts (sorry, mediates/ facilitates) with the girl outside, which resulted in one of the most amazing sentences I have seen, almost entirely composed of the words ‘argue’ and ‘me’, but one that ran on for what felt like ten minutes. It was also untranslatable; I gave up on my third attempt. It was Joyceian

Andrew Motion, the softly-spoken avatar of calm, tried to turn them on to poetry, but also faced the same thuggish ignorance when it became clear to the class that he hadn’t brought any chicken nuggets or video clips of cats falling off drainpipes. Unfortunately what he did bring was a large painting by Edward Hopper called ‘Cape Cod Morning’ and asked them to write a poem inspired by how they felt about it. The only flaw in this cunning plan was that it doesn’t get past ‘Go’ if the kids don’t give a monkeys about the mid twentieth-century American Realist painting. Always have a task that everyone can do.

Poor Andrew; it was pitiful to see him blow his gasket at them, to little effect (and didn’t he do it in quite an odd way? He literally went from Yoda-calm to white-hot in a flash…and then back to Zen. Blink and you miss it. The kids clearly did.). Mary couldn’t even blow her gasket, bless her. So woefully unable was she to dress her desire in righteous vigour that she ended up asking tips from the kids about how to keep control of the class, which incidentally usually indicates that you are very close to going from ‘punchbag’ to ‘joke.’ The kids were warming to her, sure, but the next time she needs to speak sternly to someone, they’ll be unable to separate her ire from the fact that she learned it from them.

This raises another point: that every kid already knows how rowdy students need to be treated. I’ve had many conversations with kids that ‘the system has let down’ (© Jamie Oliver) and they all say the same thing: kids only act like tyrants with teachers that let them boss them around. Predators prey on victims- they’re not out for a chinning, they only muck about when they think they can get away with it. Danielle, the last hope for mankind, spelt it out. ‘Get them out’ she said to Mary’s request for strategic advice when something is flung around the room. ‘No warning; just get them out.’ She is, you see, a kid who wants to learn, and is fed up with the howling vanity and self-regard of the majority of her peers. So let me echo this sentiment: get them out- send them out. Give them some stick. Make them feel uncomfortable; make them see that if you try to push other people’s lives around, other people may very well push back.

Not that you;d know about it from D’Abbs. I really feel sorry for this guy, honestly. It’s not always obvious, but this fact needs to be repeated: he’s the only teacher in the whole school. Everyone else is a telly gonk or a field-leader. But no other teachers. No wonder he feels stressed. He also has the following handcuffs:

  • There are no sanctions other than ‘a bit of a talking to’ (or in an emergency they might be told ‘he’s very disappointed.’)
  • The kids are on camera
  • If they tell someone to f**k off, they’re allowed to come back the next day
  • He has them for a few weeks
  • They’re all NEETs.

No wonder the poor guy’s in tears. He literally has nothing in his arsenal to quell and direct them the right way, other than a seeming belief that, if spoken to in the right way, softly and with respect, they will experience a Damascan conversion. ‘I’m just putting out fires,’ he says through a spasm of man-tears, as Jamie does what any guy does when another guy visibly expresses an emotion other than joy or malice; he ignores it and looks uncomfortable, as the director thinks, ‘Oh boy, it’s Christmas.’

‘Favete linguis. Please?’

If the Dream School- if any school- doesn’t get serious about rewards AND sanctions, then it can expect to to face the same behaviour over and over again, until the end of time, like Ground Hog Day in Hell. Keep the firehose handy, John. You’ll need it.

And you know things are getting weird when Alastair Campbell and Jazzy B are coming in to give you a cuddle. This guy’s the boss right? What, did Jamie nip into the staffroom and grab whomever wasn’t brewing up or updating Facebook and say, ‘Quick, D’Abbs needs a man-hug- who’s in?’

(Incidentally, Jamie provided the second most cryptic and mysterious piece of wisdom of the whole program, when he replied to John’s fire-fighting comment with, ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fire fighting as long as we’re not starting fires.’ Pardon? He should have finished it off with ‘Grasshopper’ and stalked off into the sunset with a staff. John, startled out of his misery like a distracted baby with colic, looked at Jamie with confusion, and so did I.)

Back to Andrew Motion, and he found a novel approach to improving his lessons: going round the school and telling the kids, ‘You know that poetry thing? If you want to p**s off out of it, frankly that’s no skin off my righteous venerable ass.’ It was brilliant. If only we truly had that option in school; to turn to the most venomous ingrate and say, ‘Actually, do you mind not turning up ever again?’ and just teaching the ones that want to be there. Alas, every Education Act after 1910 rather prohibits that sort of thing, you know, universal enfranchisement, and all that. Still, it’s the Dream School, and we were promised new strategies. I just didn’t realise we’d see illegal ones as well.

First there is homework…then there is no homework.’

Perhaps predictably, Motion found that his second lesson, thinned out somewhat, was much more successful. The change of environment probably helped. But he was patient, and encouraging, and smart enough to know that the phrase ‘this is good’ can be used subjectively to the talent of those assessed, and quite right too. It might have been the only time in their lives that some of these kids had been praised for something they had written or created, and I bet it felt good. I like Motion, as a teacher. Apart from his heart-beat outburst, he keeps his cool, swigs endlessly from his Evian (although I’ve seen bottles like that act as beards for a number of more volatile liquids) and says what he means. Stay, and abide by my rules, he says, or do not and go. There’s a kind of beginner’s wisdom there- after all, at what point do we say with some of these children, ‘You know what? If you don’t care that much, I can’t care for you.’ They are, after all, mostly 18.

Other highlights of this week (and there are many, and there always are):

This could be you.

  • Uncle Jazzy (Uncle B?) doing the tough sympathy thing with poor old LaToya, who was having a breakdown because she hadn’t seen her kid in fifteen minutes or something. I think it was her kid: when Professor B asked her what she missed, she said ‘Her boyfriend,’ whom, you might think from the intensity of her misery, was somewhere in Iraq, or lost in the jungles of Borneo. It was impossible not to feel for her, but she presented a puzzle: she had to drop out of school to look after her baby, which you’d have to have a heart of tungsten not to sympathise with; and she was drenched in misery at the self-knowledge that she ‘gave up’ at everything, which at least shows a degree of introspection, although if left to marinate in self-loathing it becomes a cocktail of bottomless, paralysed indolence. But the puzzle is that, although she could see it, she wouldn’t do anything about it. And then she dropped out of school the next day. It was, I must say, very sad.
  • Harlem, bursting in to a meeting in the Head Master’s office, demanding that everyone dropped everything and do what she wanted, otherwise she would ‘smash someone in the face,’ or something else from Chaucer. She really is a piece of work. But then, why should she stop? She told the Head to f**k off last week, and called him a d**khead, but here she is, back again, because the Dream School doesn’t want to ‘let her down’ like state education did. Newsflash! She’s had plenty of chances- and every time you give her another one, all she learns is that you can spin the world around you in a whirlpool of narcissism and nothing bad will happen to you. What she needs, I would argue, is to experience the long, long drop that being vile can lead to; to feel the impact at the bottom, to bruise, to have the breath knocked out of her, until she stops thinks, and learns. But endless chambers of bouncy castles teach her nothing except to repeat her behaviour ad nauseum.

We all need to learn how to fail, and what we do afterwards. Learned helplessness is the worst gift we can give our children.

  • Teacher of the Week: Andrew Motion, for his farmyard boot camp, and his classroom eugenics.
  • Student of the week: Aysha, who along with Danielle, looks like one of the great hopes from this experiment.
  • Quote of the week: Jamie McOliver, referring to the pugnacious Harlem. ‘She’s such a top student at times,’ which surely must win an award for the most elastic use of the word ‘top’, and the most generous use of the phrase ‘at times.’ And Hannibal the Cannibal was such a top host. At times.

Roll on next week. Mr Oliver, I salute you.

Jamie’s Dream School 3: Self indiscipline

‘I have a guilty secret- I’m loaded.’

Warning: contains nuts. And swearing.
Quote of the week this episode from Harlem, portrayed as the school nutter, who goes up like Semtex in a rattle whenever someone…well, does anything actually:

‘You could be like, f*ck it, forget about it and I’m proud of every single fuckin’ person here.’

This, while foaming at the mouth over some inexplicable, invisible affront to her dignity, of which she has none. But more on that later.

Jamie’s Wednesday night gravity well keeps pulling the teachers towards it like cosmic dust, both at home and in the school itself, as new telly teachers rise up like ghosts from the Green Room. You would have to staple me to the space shuttle and press ‘go’ to prevent me from watching this now. It’s not just a great piece of teaching telly, but the best teacher programming I’ve seen in the last…ever, actually. It’s not just a piece of media whimsy- it’s a huge concave mirror, reflecting and magnifying issues within education, teaching and policy-making that makes it extremely hard to review, simply because there are so many topics raised. Manfully, I’ll do my best. It’s been criticised for inventing a narrative, for mangling complex situations into telly-friendly human interest stories, but that’s not the point (although undoubtedly true); the point is that this show probably pulls more viewers that Teachers TV Channel has for the last five years. Which admittedly might not be hard.

Dream science teacher.

This week’s episode was called ‘Self-discipline’. One of the things I find both charming and cringy about the program is that because the majority of the school’s staff are non-teachers, they walk into classrooms with the wide-eyed Bambi innocence of the trainee teacher, usually brimming with unrealistic ideas about what to expect, which are then dashed on the cliff face of the class’s indifference. And, exactly as in schools, the combination of naivety and optimism results in cynicism and resentment. We’ve all been there; we’ve all walked in full of high hopes and dreams of inspiring children, only to walk out the same day thinking, ‘The little b*stards, can’t they see they’re throwing away their futures? After all that work I put in!’

This is one of the reasons  that many new teachers start to walk away after a few months- they genuinely don’t realise what it’s like, at least initially, in many schools. There’s been a lot of hoo-ha about Katherine Birbalsingh in the press in the last few months (remind me not to book any speaking gigs at party conferences, will you?), but it seems that a lot of what she said in her address wasn’t just true, but obviously so. You could see Alvin Hall, the affable financial educator, goggling in disbelief at the kids’ initial reaction to his lessons.

Speaking of addressing conferences, Alastair Campbell, clearly not giving a f**k about teaching any more lessons, decided to have a bit of a jolly (a common teacher gambit, I might add) and take a couple of kids off on a school trip. We’ve all been there Alastair, no shame there. Not that I think you have a shame problem, anyway. Interestingly he chose our loquacious heroine, Harlem, and Nanakwame, who distinguishes himself later on in the episode by assaulting his class mate Jenny, pushing her from a chair in anger because, and I quote, ‘I don’t give a sh*t, she were in my desk and that, and she saw my stuff here, and no way, that’s not on, took my f*#kin’ chair,’ or something like that. My universal translator was broken, but I’m sure it was something poetic.

So, the two ambassadors of Dream School were sitting in the audience at the Cheltenham, Literary Festival (described as a ‘literary lovers’ dream’ on the website) alongside a demographic of white middle-class people with an average age of sixty who presumably had come to applaud Alastair Campbell on his keen sense of propriety and international brinkmanship. He invited a question from  from the United States of Oliver. Harlem didn’t disappoint:

‘If we don’t get no jobs…the young people and that….and we don’t get no benefits….I’m not bein’ funny, but how do we eat. And I’m tellin’ you, young people stick together and there’s gonna be a war.’

Withering. One fragrant audience member described her contribution as ‘refreshing’, which I suppose could be true, if it was as a contrast to carefully thought out and well-expressed opinion.  I suppose you could call that refreshing, although you’d then have to call a lot of other things refreshing too, like racism and stupidity.

Making rules for Nigel- setting boundaries

One of the themes of this week was John D’Abbro (or Dabbs, as he undoubtedly doesn’t like to be called by the kids. Or maybe not- he came across in the first few episodes as a bit warm and fuzzy.) getting medieval on the kids- which for him meant saying, ‘I’m very cross, and I’m going to have to sleep on what I’m going to do.’ Actually, I warmed to him this week, mainly because he started getting a bit tougher with the school as a whole (and let’s remember, we’re talking about twenty kids here- not an Alcatraz of pirates and horse-rustlers), and we saw him deal with adults a bit more (just thin-slicing his interactions with Starkey and Hall this week, it was immediately obvious that he has a terrific rapport with adults; he strikes me as being a master of negotiation, diplomacy and democratic leadership, but with an edge of authority).

The trigger for him drawing the wagons in a circle and declaring war on injuns, was the fact that after ten minutes, nobody had shown up for Hall’s first maths lesson, and after twenty, less than half. Hall, I might add, had flown in from America. The kids, it would appear, have but to tumble downstairs or across the road or something to get there. Still, as the tall Beiber-alike patiently explained to the irate Head, ‘Yeah see, we both set alarms, but one was silent and the other one didn’t go off…and…and…’ etc etc, until your head attempts to screw itself off in an act of self-destruction and nihilism.

Tonight’s star prize…sorry, scholarship.

So he called an emergency assembly. It was odd to see him ask Hall and Starkey to sit in for back up; it made all three of them seem, unlikely as it sounds, like a unit of teachers, like a real staffroom. For a minute I expected Starkey to scurry off to the kettle, saying, ‘I’m gaspin’ for a brew.’ From the second he started to lay down the law, Harlem’s eyes started rolling back in their sockets like the wheels of a one-armed bandit. If she’d kissed her teeth any harder she would have literally imploded, like a dwarf star. I’m sure that in real life she’s a Disney Princess, but on my telly she appeared to be auditoning for Stars in Their Eyes as ‘Confrontational Bitch.’ Holy Cow. One word from the head and she…was…OFF!

‘Why you got to talk to me like that? Why did you even say that? I ain’t signin’ no f*ckin’ contract….this is, like, back in mainstream school…’ and so on and so on. If you saw her, you’ll know that she just spiralled and spiralled in an ever increasing whirlpool of fury and malice, drawing in perfectly innocent bystanders as her storm brewed, until she was being held back by her peers before she spannered poor Jenny.

The Head didn’t need to do anything- she was fighting with herself, with anyone, with the breath in her body, anything, anyone. Actually, Dabbs made, I would say, a bit of a mistake by engaging with her far too much initially. She started to kick off, and his full attention was turned on her, which meant that she was setting the agenda, and he was responding to it; with hindsight, he could have asked her to leave much earlier, and carried on with his general message, dealing with her later.

But hindsight isn’t granted to us in advance (funnily enough) and it’s easy to be the armchair judge. We all have our own styles. But in a class of twenty-thirty kids, we simply don’t have time to get involved with every kid who wants to vent a little bit of what they’re carrying around. If we did, there would never be time to teach, so we deal with it hard and fast  at the time, and dissect it later.

After she melted down she was went out, and she stormed and huffed and howled at the world, at the injustice of it all, and essentially, how everyone and everything could go f**k themselves. (I told you it was sweary this week). Hall and Starkey said it first, and said it right- she should never be allowed back in. This is, after all, a four week experiment. She’s been through 14 years of free state funded education. If she doesn’t want to play by what are pretty easy-going rules, then frankly, she can stick her attitude, her vanity, her arrogance, her petulance, and her poor self control up her backside.

I have nothing against this girl personally, but her telly persona encapsulates the perfect, awful narrative of the national education strategy. We have decided for a number of reasons- compassion, the social contract, self-interest, enlightened egoism, human rights, social justice- to both provide and make compulsory a certain diet of education for everyone in this and most countries. And congratulations, say I.

But how far do we go down the road of providing this before we admit that sometimes, just sometimes, some people aren’t very god at perceiving opportunity, or of making the best of their circumstances? I can just about buy it if someone tells me that a three year old can’t help themselves if they act badly. But that excuse melts away like mist when we’re talking about 17 and 18 year-olds. These aren’t infants; these are mostly formed personalities, human beings who can vote, and fight, and drive, and drink, and couple (possibly simultaneously). How far along the road of compassion do we walk before we look at someone like Harlem, screaming and howling because the world won’t bend over backwards to kiss her ass, before we say, ‘Nope, you’re mental. There’s the door.’?

I ask this because we have to balance these kinds of concerns every day as teachers: the vast majority of teachers I know are torn between these two extremes- wanting to provide the very best for everyone, but realising that not everyone can have your sole attention. We make utilitarian choices every day, and frankly, although sometimes the decisions are hard, sometimes they get made easier for us when people like Harlem make it so hard to want to keep trying. We’ve all got kids who work their socks off and try their best; we all have kids who look at you like you’re something they just sneezed into a hanky. Guess which ones eventually leave with the good references and, usually, the good grades? I’ll give you a moment.

This point, and others, was made just as neatly with the Biosphere task. Again, we had a crop of hand picked (by Robert Winston, no less) yoots were selected for an incredible experience- three days in a specially constructed biosphere with Jane Poynter, the renowned environmental biologist who was there to show them some experiential science in a mini-Eden. It was, I must say, a chance of a life time. Except that after about five minutes most of them couldn’t see that- they could only see the privation; the chemical toilets, the absence of television, and worst of all, no smokes. It was tragic seeing all but one of therm storm off the first morning they could, simply because they were Jonesing for a Silk Cut; oh, the horror, the horror. This was perfectly summarised by the sight of the alien, expensive plastic octagonal greenhouse hand built in the playground, with the words ‘Fuck this’ written in condensation from the inside.

The Power of One- How peer pressure smashes individuality
But in every night, a candle glows: Danielle, who missed a year of school through illness, talked about her own school experience, comparing it to her present one with Mr Oliver:

‘It was awful- everyone mucking about so that nobody got anything done. And eventually you just joined in because that’s what everyone else was doing.’

But she chose not to, and my heart nearly burst for her. She stuck it out, and seemed to form a bond with Poynter. It was interesting to see her talk about how maybe, just maybe, Hair and Beauty might not be the ceiling of her aspirations. You could see Paynter restraining herself from doing a cartwheel of agreement at that point. How awful to think that many children, for want, perhaps, of effective role models, and advice, accept the first role that society offers them, or that appears to be suitable. I think a lot more girls need to meet a lot more women like Paynter, and show them that there’s more to life than the non-aspirations of some of their more thuggish peers.

And yet, it;s not as simple as that. There are no heroes and villains here, because this, despite the program makers intentions, isn’t a narrative: it’s a collection of human beings with their own subjective perspectives, none of whom cast themselves as the antagonist. Danielle admits that she was also a bit of a handful when she was at school. Connor showed moments of insight and agreeability. Kwame, a hooligan earlier on, showed a shy flicker of ambition with Hall’s enthusiastic, tender approach to mathematics (and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). Jenny was all about getting in people’s faces last week- this week she was calm and motivated (‘Four weeks isn’t enough!’ Love it).

It’s the same in schools that present challenging classes. Very rarely will you get a child so belligerent and isolated that they won’t respond to some serious but concerned attention in a one-to-one situation, and often the point of detentions, after their punitive intent, is to establish some kind of rapport of understanding between the teacher and the offender, so that everyone understands that it’s easier to cooperate than it is to conflict. But there’s a tipping point, past which  good behaviour is hard to achieve for a teacher- put simply, when there are more than a few kids mucking about, it starts to escalate, as the culture unconsciously tilts towards chaos and hedonism. Put one naughty child in a great class, and you’ll often see their behaviour normalise, as they take their cues from their peers. The reverse is also true. What Jamie has right now is a class where there are still several major players bent on disruption and my-way-or-the-highway. Until they’re dealt with (liquidated, sold off as scraps, buried in the basement, whatever) then the whole class can still come crashing down around everyone.

Getting your bribe on- incentives for performance

Danielle, for her perseverance, won the cheers of her peers; perhaps more interestingly, she also won a scholarship- although when Jamie said ‘scholarship’, all the kids could hear was ‘Free holiday in Arizona.’ It was a terrific bribe/ reward, and potentially then kind of experience that change the direction of her life, which would be fantastic. Of course, as regular teachers we don’t have access to these kinds of bribes- I try to keep reminding them of the real goals of what they’re doing in school:
1. It’s useful to them
2. It might be interesting for its own sake

New LEA advisor on curriculum policy

3. Flourishing as a student will assist their flourishing in life.

These are all profound, and true, but they’re a lot harder to sell than two weeks in America. The danger with that kind of explicit, Deal or No Deal prize, is that the remaining kids get real motivated real fast in the hope that they too walk away with the motorboat or the family car. And wouldn’t that be a sad way for the program to go? I could probably get every single kid in any school working pretty well for three weeks if they felt there was some enormous, immediate tent-pole of a prize waiting for them. The point of this experience, I had assumed, was to try to turn them back onto education, not just bribe them by appealing to their sensual instincts. Surely?

When we have to say goodbye- realising that we can’t do it all for them

The program finished with Harlem and her mother watching the playback of her earlier confrontation; her face, as she saw herself screaming like a boiled dwarf was, I must say, a picture. It spoke immaculately of regret and reflection, although you wouldn’t know it when she opened her mouth; ‘At least I didn’t hit her,’ she said, in one of the least convincing attempts at self-justification since Cain told the Big Guy to mind his own business.

Even deflated, even knowing she was wrong, she still did what she knew best- she battled, she blasted, she lashed, she argued. My heart wept for her poor mother, who came from a different generation, a different culture; and she knew, she knew that her daughter, whom she had instinctively, lovingly supported from the start, had been a prize plonker, probably not for the first time.

As teachers we see this all the time: the antagonistic pupil, who then races home to tell their parents how awful the school and the teachers are being. the parents, thus primed, then dig their heels in and, if you’re not careful how you express yourself when you call home, can become one with their child. Every teacher needs to take a deep breath and speak with enormous civility when they call home- remember, the classroom firework that went off in your room earlier on, is someone’s son or daughter, and no ground is to be gained by going in like the SAS. If parents and teachers can both see that they share the same goal- the educational well being of the child- then enormous progress can be made. And parents that ‘stick up’ for the kid as a default might think they’re doing the right thing, but in many cases, they’re undermining the educational future of their children.

It’s heartening to see that Dabbs knows that the school can’t be run without rules, and that rules don’t happen without penalties for disobeying them. Believe it or not, that simple proposition is actually quite controversial in some circles of education, as some teachers have bought into what appears to be a rather odd and somewhat counter-intuitive idea that rules only oppress us. Hmm; I suggest that these people take a stroll into a maximum security prison during a riot and see how agreeable life is without rules and their enforcers. We sacrifice some liberty for a lot of security, as Hobbes would say. There’s nothing to be gained by denying it.

I’ll leave the final word to Alvin Hall (it was going to be Harlem, but I thought it might be novel for her not to get the last word; besides, it would probably be ‘f*ck’):

‘I’ve been told these kids are bright. I don’t know if there’s a different definition between the US and the UK about that word…..I would say that some of them are clever….some of them are wily….some of them display emotional intelligence. But not bright.’

Welcome, Alvin, to a culture of education that celebrates mediocrity as long as it is preceded and succeeded by sub-averageness. Where all achievement is relative, and where other people are blamed when we fail.

Roll on next week. I saw the ghastly Cherie Blair stalking the corridors this episode, so not long now…

Jamie’s Dream School 2: The Baited Bear and the Referee


Oliver’s multimedia Free School gathers pace, in what is increasingly becoming the top television of the week. Blue Peter– watch your back. This week, another brace of celebrity talent tries to inspire a room full of exam dodgers, some old faces return for more porridge, and we find out what’s left once the ice that’s broken has melted.

Oliver’s intentions, as I’ve mentioned, come from a place that can only be described as golden. But some of his assumptions are exactly as uninformed as I imagine mine would be were I to recommend a better way for him to chop his onions. Case in point: ‘In a way, the system has let these kids down,’ he says, in a quote from Oliver that prefaces the program. Aye, if by ‘In a way’ you mean ‘It’s not true.’ The assumption behind that proposition is that the state has a responsibility to make sure that every child leaves school with medals, as if the student has no responsibility to his or her own future. What are we supposed to do, drag all kids by the hair and threaten to play knifey with them like De Niro in Casino unless they get down to some GCSE revision? Because there comes a point in any society with a claim on being a liberal democracy, where we have to concede that, while the state may be duty bound to provide a certain level of education and other civil goods to its citizens, it can’t be simultaneously held responsible if the citizens take one look at what’s on offer, however charming, and say, ‘Bugger that.’

The state doesn’t let these kids down; the state provides them with a decade and a half of free education, books, rooms, teachers, trips and lunches. If a kid decides to p*ss about and be a nuisance to others, then we may, as civilised members of a community, give them a chance or two to calm down and wise up, but how long do we do that before we say, ‘Actually, you’re a kamikaze, mate. Good luck.’ Nobody wants kids to leave school without qualifications and life skills; but the idea that it’s the school’s fault if they don’t puts the cart before the horse. And then blames the cart. Bad cart!

The first week of teaching can see both class and teacher enjoy a sort of honeymoon (albeit not the sort  you’d actually pay for), as they sniff each other out warily. It can also lead to the biggest clashes, as the juggernauts of character and intention can collide into each other (as Starkey found). New teachers often start a school and think, ‘That’s not so bad,’ only to find that the class realises how far they can go, and then runs past it. Time will tell if the more successful teachers here are experiencing this syndrome. Rolf Harris and Robert Winston seem to have made a good fist in the more practical subjects; Starkey and Callow struggled with their book learnin’.

‘I’m worried we’re lettin’ them down.’

Jamie started the show with a group hug, as all the kids stood up and shared their expectations from the School, although I missed any of them saying ‘To be on Telly’, or ‘I woz bored, innit?’ From my experience of kids, I’ve learned that ‘being on telly’ is, for many of them, seen as some kind of Olympian deification, an ascension into the elect. They seem to imagine that once you’re on film, you’ve been transformed magically into light and magnetism, living forever in an immaterial realm of luxury and immanence. I’ve been on telly. All you get are biscuits and the odd taxi. Connor, our hero from last week’s Starkey-slapping (‘Have you always been that short? I’m not bein’ funny.’) said one of the saddest things:

‘I want better than what I’m destined for. School didn’t care. If you weren’t going to get five A-Cs they didn’t care.’

That boy may need to work on his manners, but he’s not stupid. He’s simply sussed out that many schools have prioritised their position on the league tables over trying to make sure that all kids get an appropriate education. Mind you, from his behaviour on camera, I imagine he hasn’t made it easy, which is why it becomes even easier for schools to say ‘sod ’em’ and focus on the borderline D/C students. Whenever Ofsted or the League Tables set a criteria, most schools will bend themselves into a shape that best takes advantage of that criteria, and exploits the system to its advantage. I believe this is analogous to the maxim, ‘Good money drives out bad.’ If you establish 5A-Cs as your benchmark, then schools will sell their first born to wizards in order to achieve that magic figure as its own end, in itself– and the other aims of education wither on the vine.

I loved Jenny’s comments about what happened at her school: ‘My school got a new head teacher…and we didn’t agree with each other.’ I’m reminded of Tom Baker’s alcoholic, mad captain in Black Adder, talking (in the 18th century) about the shape of the world. ‘Opinion is divided says I,’ he begins. ‘I says it’s round….and everyone else says it’s flat.’

‘Kill them. Kill them ALL.’

Alastair Campbell seemed, by the evidence presented, to have had a relatively smooth time, although from the moment we saw him walk in with a devilish confidence, it was clear he was no pushover. I imagine if you can chew out cabinet ministers and provoke international conflicts causing the death of hundreds of thousands, a few oiky kids chewing gum and texting isn’t a huge worry. It has to be said though, despite his credentials for ‘most evil man in the world’, he also carried himself in a manner that was bound to work well, even for a new teacher- fearless, calm and patient. There was no sense that he was worried about the kids not behaving, and he managed to convey a kind of dispassionate detachedness (i.e. professionalism) while at the same time talking with certainty, confidence and passion about what he wanted. In many ways he spoke like an experienced teacher, and while one lesson doth not a term make, it was a good start. His Top Trump Card reads Humanity: 06, Teaching: 85.

One tip for you, Mr Campbell: if you’re going to have one rule, don’t make it ‘One person speaks at a time.’ Because then if one of them gets a word in, everyone else- including you- is bound to shut up. Mind you, I suspect he’s not one to be bound by classroom conventions and verbal contracts if he isn’t bothered about International Law and the United Nations, but there you go. *dismounts soapbox*

Jazzy B also seemed to have a good crack at it- I suspect he had an advantage simply by virtue of being a once-famous pop star, which would cow many of the kids into admiration- witness Angelique squealing with delight upon discovering that her drama teacher Simon Callow was starring in the West End show they’d been taken to see. ‘That’s my teacher!’ she raved. Last week she was doing her nails and texting Domino’s Pizzas when he was trying to teach her. It’s often said that less able kids like active subjects like PE and Music, but this simple act of reduction ignores the fact that these subjects require ability to do well in, and equating low academic ability with poor behaviour with a preference for running about and banging drums is an insult to every leg on that tripod.

But Jazzy B (‘To you, Mr and Mrs B, a son- Jazzy!’) seemed to also be possessed of confidence, calm and certainty about what he wanted to do, and when he spoke, it was with the cool, clear tone of a man who expects people to listen to him. Many new teachers mistake severity for firmness, and ferocity for vigour. I also suspect he doesn’t call the kids ‘fat’ very often. He was even giving tips to Starkey, who by now was realising that he was going to look like an angry shrew if he didn’t try to make a success of it. Perhaps he was motivated by seeing that some of his colleagues in the staffroom were to some extent succeeding- and there, I suspect, is a man who doesn’t like to give up easily.

(Incidentally, I would give up a finger to see that staffroom, with Rolf Harris making a brew for him, Alastair Campbell and Robert Winston, as Simon Callow complains about what a bitch Louisa Sutton is in 10M).

‘I’m jousting in tourneys- like a G6, like a G6.’

However Starkey reflected, it paid off: he had a moment of reconciliation with Connor, his nemesis, in a manner that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the end of a Richard Curtis movie, all awkward nobility, embarrassed humility and ‘no-it-was-all-my-fault’. Nobody cried or anything, but it was a touching example of how sometimes the relationship between pupils and teachers can improve when you take both parties into a different context, give them time to reflect, and remove the audience (well, apart from the camera, I suppose).

His lesson showed humour, positivity and gave the truth to the idea that sometimes when you bare your teeth, you can smile a little at the same time. He seems the most nervous of the teachers, and that often expresses itself as aggression, as the teacher becomes brittle and bristles to every slight, real or imagined. In his position, a new teacher would have to learn to let some of the little things slide at the time, and maybe follow up later on, after the lesson. I’m still not sure what the system of sanctions are at Jamie’s Dream School, other than being told by the affable Head Master ‘I’m going to sleep on my decision’ before deciding to do nothing. The only sanction, it seems, is the threat of expulsion which then doesn’t happen. I bet all the kids are wetting their knickers over that one.

Simon Callow was trying to get down with tha kidz by showing them Romeo and Juliet, or ‘a play about two feuding gangs’ as Jamie put it. I’m sure Shakespeare would have agreed. The aim was to make it relevant to the kids, but they predictably couldn’t round up five minutes of quiet between them for Callow’s recital, which made the good bard blow his stack and shout ‘Shut up!’ at them. We’ve all been there. It’s a difficult Rubicon to re-cross, though: the kids know you’ve lost it, and it takes time to get back from the point to which you’ve fallen. Can’t blame him, though, can you? He must be thinking, ‘I’ve been in bloody ‘Four Weddings and Funeral‘. Little bastards.’ Get used to it, mate. It all takes time, and usually a few detentions and phone calls home too, neither of which you appear to have access to.

Alastair Campbell, the early years.

I think that;s the problem for all of these teachers: they have to win these kids over using nothing but their personalities, delivery and capacity to amuse, entertain and distract. This is far removed from the real school, where teachers can’t be expected to constantly do cartwheels and pull rabbits out of their asses like some children’s entertainer. We have to teach them syllabuses that contain lists and facts, and skills that often require repetition and practise to master, none of which is always amenable to conversion into a game of ‘Take me Out‘ or ‘Ker-Plunk!’ Sometimes it’s a grind, but learning always has been. Without the ability to sanction as well as reward pupils, many would choose to do other than their teacher described.

Jamie’s School, by having no clear system of following up with behaviour problems, lays itself open to accusations of being a well-meaning but doomed experiment, because as soon as all of these students leave the walls of their fantasy boarding school, they’ll enter workplaces and environments where they will have to listen to other people, be on time, and sometimes just do as they’re bloody told without someone catering to their whims. Sometimes the iPods have to be put away. In the outside world, they will get few chances to make amends.

And that’s another reason why schools have to provide environments of structure and restraint: in order to elevate and improve. We mustn’t pretend that kids should be left to their own devices to discover their own, magical, internal butterflies. Sometimes they need to be told what to do, and how to do it,. That’s the process which I’ll describe as ‘raising children to become adults’. That’s how we communicate societal values. That’s how we teach them to be people. Until people can learn to restrain themselves, they can never flourish with half as much success as they could were they able to apply themselves to objectives with tenacity and rigour. It’s not enough to blame the Head Master for getting chucked out- sometimes these kids need to look in the mirror to see where the problems really lie. And that’s our job in schools- to guide, to lead out, and to show them how to make as few mistakes as possible, as well as succeed. And what to do when we sometimes, inevitably, fail.

LOVED Jamie’s confiscation of phones at the start of his lesson, having already surmised that their presence is like kryptonite to the well-planned lesson. It’s hard to convey how much of an impact these little boxes have had on teaching and learning (or not); some teenagers literally cannot bear to be off them for five minutes. It’s like crack. And Jamie, I think, summed up with characteristic brevity and simplicity the central truth of teaching and behaviour management:

”You want to gain their respect, get them to be your chum, but at he same time have the kind of strictness and ‘I ain’t takin’ that.'”

Amen, brother. Most teachers start off with the vague ambition of being the cool teacher they themselves never had- informative, entertaining, and a bit of a laugh. Alas, it takes about five minutes for them to realise that the kids couldn’t give a monkey’s buttock about their aspirations, and my, my, can anyone else see a target on that new guy’s back? Teachers need to be tough and tender. Tough love, as I am fond of saying, is still love. Sometimes you love someone so much, you;re going to be strict with them. Sometimes you have to take a bullet. Eventually you hope they’ll learn to do the same for others.

Special mention has to go to the photographer Rankin (‘To you, Mr and Mrs….er…..a son- Rankin!’) who seemed to do so well with them that they were turning in homework that, to my amateur eyes, should have been hanging in a Hoxton Cafe, it was so good. Connor’s infinite regress of eyes and faces, Carl’s scarily Pop Art portrait, and others, showed that many of the kids could produce the goods when they wanted to. Rankin’s style was positive, authoritative and encouraging; I expect that half of his class were surprised to be told they could succeed if they tried hard enough in a way that didn’t immediately suggest they were total failures for not so doing.

Rankin, Jazzy B, and reluctantly, Alastair Campbell, get my ‘Outstanding lesson’ observation this week. Starkey gets the ‘Most improved’ accolade, and Simon Callow gets the ‘Best use of the phrase Shut Up’ gong.

And the final word has to go to the conversation between the Head Master and Starkey:

Head: ‘I’ve always rated you as a historian, but now I rate you as a teacher.’
Starkey: ‘…’

I’m sure that Richard Starkey is blushing with flattered embarrassment at being told he’s ‘rated’ as a the eminent…er, head master John D’Abbro. As they walked off, arm in arm into the sunset, Starkey said, ‘They’ll all be doing PhDs next week.’

Not yet, David, not yet. Give the Exams Boards a few more years, and then we might be talking.

A school trip to the Land of Philosophy and Umbrellas: A dear Green place and Auld Reekie in rain and shine.

‘Where’s Nando’s?’
I’ve taken a break from skewering educational research of wonky and illegitimate provenance, or badly reviewing portrayals of teachers in the movies; instead I spent a week on a Philosophy tour of Scotland with a band of stalwart sixth formers-seventeen, I’d like to add, which surely qualifies me for some kind of Olympic medal for Buddha-like calm. I was planning on writing about Jamie’s Dream Kitchen part deux this weekend, because they weren’t showing it in the forecourt of Nando’s in the sodding rain.
We started off in Edinburgh, which is, as anyone who’s been will testify, a fabulous place to visit. Not only is it the Heart Disease Capital of the entire world- yes, we’re very proud; Burkino Faso was catching up last year, but we deep-fried a few cigarettes and saw them off- but it’s also a splendidly compact and accessible little picture box of a city. Like Paris, much of Edinburgh’s best china is focused on one area:  it’s possible to walk in a concentric circle starting at at the Scott Monument and spend a good 48 hours seeing nothing but scenes from the 1960 Disney film Greyfriars Bobby lit by faint, but crystal-clear sunshine, and inhale nothing but hops. It’s an agreeable city, and when the Sun shines, it polishes its teeth, and sparkles.
There was, to be fair, a good deal of hoofing, and even the sturdiest of my student fellowship found their resolve put through a rainy mangle. Fortunately I managed to convince them that it was an enormous game of Wii hiking, although they kind of smelled a rat when we got to the top of Arthur’s Seat (a hill or a mountain depending on how tough you want to sound, that rears up in the centre of Auld Reekie and turns it into an rather grand, tartan and granite doughnut) and there were no plug sockets. There was, however, a jewellery box view of orange marbles and fairy castles twinkling all around us in the crepuscular haze as evening turned to night.
It’s hard not to love a city that lays its best cutlery our for you so easily- from the Victorian folly of Calton Hill to the grid of New Town, the endless, subsiding graveyards and their cold, twisted ironwork, Edinburgh doesn’t have to try hard to impress; it doesn’t need to, and the viewer merely acknowledges the beauty, the archaeology of architecture, the convergence of centuries of commerce, law and civic pride with a nod of their head.
And I know that’s true, because even the kids thought it. You know a city is charming indeed when it charms the citizens of the next century, who have already accessed every Forbidden City and Shangri-La from their bedrooms.
The Twelfth Doctor.
But there was a point, indeed there was, besides an agreeable tour of Athens’ damp and blasted counterpart- and incidentally, I’m not sure how many modern Athenians would refer to their crumbling, crowded city as the ‘Edinburgh of the South’, but there you go. We were there to meet and listen to the inimitable Alasdair Richmond. The word ‘inimitable’ is often used to introduce alcoholics and delinquents at award ceremonies, but I use the word carefully. From the rim of his fedora to the paisley-patterned waist coat, he conjures the image of a gentleman conjurer, or a member of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. His discourse confidently and endlessly hyperlinks to other ideas, cultural and philosophical. His delivery is possibly the best I’ve ever heard in any University speaker- precise, witty, and laden with examples that both illustrate and entertain- the former is an essential predicate; the latter is not, but transforms a worthy expansion into a thing that stays with you. And it’s funnier too, I might add. His lectures on Hume’s take on causation, freewill, miracles and induction were a breath of fresh air to me, as I teach Philosophy alone, and refer constantly to myself for reflection and feedback. Fortunately I routinely grade myself kindly, so I don’t hurt my own feelings.
He was kind enough to look after us for two days, which gave me ample wraparound time to drag seventeen pupils up and down monuments and cobbled promenades. Deep-fried Mars Bars were encountered. No more need be said about Scotland’s peculiar talent for unusual methods of suicide. 
High summer, Glasgow.
Then, on to Glasgow. Glasgow is a much harder sell, almost inevitably after Edinburgh, but made harder by the fact that we had chosen one of the 364 days of the year that the season varies between Arctic gales and relentless, dispassionate rain, with alternating bouts of each in quick succession, just to make really sure that you want to be there. It is, I must say, sometimes a bit of a test of character. Philosophy to the rescue! (And you don’t hear that very often). 
The less dashingly draped but equally intellectually dashing Dr Ben Colburn of Glasgow University’s Philosophy department. I met Ben when I was at Cambridge last year on a School Teacher Fellowship, and he kindly lent me his time and expertise with a paper I was writing. Lecturing, it seems, is like being in the diplomatic service- you can end up anywhere. I was glad he’d ended up here, and that he’d also kindly given up some of his time to look after a crew of Cockney Philosophers, many of whom were by this point convinced that Scotland was actually a submerged continent, a bit like Atlantis, or Lovecraft’s’ R’lyeh. Ben Colburn’s enthusiasm was infectious, and by cleverly putting the students into groups, he managed to squeeze the last of their focus and energy out of them, which is no mean feat when they’ve been pounding pavements and monuments like they were compulsive A-board salesmen. We had to debate on a variety of thinkers’ solutions to the question, ‘Do we have an obligation to obey the law?’ Locke won, by popular vote, and if only all moral debates were settled so.
Yet another Doctor.
On second thought, that’s a terrible idea. 
I tried to suggest a further solution to the problem, which I self-effacingly christened ‘Bennett’s theory of obligation’, but there were more holes than solution to it.
There was also another aim to the visit- Kat and Emily, two of the finest students in this dimension or any other, were keen on Glasgow as a place to study, and to be fair I didn’t do anything to discourage them as studying there was one of the best experiences of my life. We met the dedicated and charming Fiona Black who gave up her time to take us round a personalised tour of the campus in what must be one of the most labour-intensive open days I can imagine, giving the lie (if one was needed), to the claim that Russell Group Universities don’t do enough to encourage social mobility and applications from talented students of any background. She was a fantastic host; we may have two future Glaswegian acolytes on our hands, but time will tell. I suspect that anyone who claimed Glasgow didn’t do enough to reach out to good candidates simply hadn’t bothered to ask for it. Reaching out involves, I believe two participants, both reaching. And until Vince Cable expects Universities to actually break into peoples’ houses and press-gang brainy kids into MAs, Fiona’s efforts were an example of the best kind of access provision.
Fiona and the Brains Trust.
I love these trips- I love taking students out of their comfort zones and showing them cities and worlds that they may never otherwise see. They may like them. They may not. At least they’ve been informed, and their frame of reference has expanded by exactly six days. Case in point: at the start of the trip, I bought a bag of Wasabi peas, and passed them around. None had tried them before. Some of them accepted, some of them decided they didn’t want to try. Some tried and hated; some tried and liked. 
I’m not sure if we have an obligation to obey the law at all times. I’m not sure if inductive inferences are reasonable grounds to support an argument. But from time to time, I know that I’m partial to a Wasabi pea. 
Finally, some tips for trips:
1. Arrange all meeting points at least half an hour in advance of when the latest possible point of no return would be.
2. Then subtract another half an hour.
3. That’s about it.
This blog brought to you by Scotland- home of weather.

Jamie’s Dream School: in special measures

‘I’m safe like a CRB check.’
Favourite quote from ‘Dream School’:
Internationally renowned Shakespearian actor Simon Callow: ‘Who’s heard of the Bard of Stratford?’
Gobby Egoist: ‘Omigod I live in Stratford, yeah!’

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s only one game in town this week, and it’s not Said Gadaffi and his suspiciously well-written Ph.D. thesis, oh no. It’s Jamie’s Dream School, which has been slouching towards us for months now; fans of light-entertainment pedagogy have been hugging themselves in anticipation like the Rapture was coming and they’d just been born again. This was worth a month’s worth of drearily wholesome Teacher’s TV.

How can anyone not like Jamie Oliver? Sure, he may be approaching near-divine ubiquitousness, only taking a break from the glass teat to allow Gok Wan or one of Simon Cowell’s ravenous combine harvesters to get a look in, but here surely is the Webster definition of having one’s heart in the right place. Boundless enthusiasm, talent and optimism is a cocktail that brings the worst out in other people, I suspect.

His School Dinner series actually knocked a few dominoes over, and made at least a few schools hide the Mars Bars- and the sight of those ghastly parents slotting Toblerones and iced doughnuts through the wire mesh fences like angry, red-faced drug dealers to their corpulent, doomed offspring was the most devastatingly upsetting social experiment since Milgram got busy with the dials.

Dream School was doomed from the start, though. Not as telly- as telly it’s an uncomfortable work of art, and until Mad Men series 4 arrives in the post (believe me, it won’t even have a chance to hit the carpet. I have a catcher’s mitt next to the letter box) it’s this month’s wide-screen must-have. As an example of how not to teach children; it should be in a glass box and tastefully up lit in the Museum d’Orsay, surrounded by red ropes and brass poles. Teachers will queue to see it, prefaced by solemn warning videos that put it in context.

This school was a three-wheeled lorry; it was a ship with a hole in the hull. And here’s where some one had blunder’d;

Wrong assumptions about teenagers

Jamie had a bad experience with school, and only found his calling once he had left, first in cooking, and later in celebrity Essex capering. He was undoubtedly bursting with talent, intelligence, curiosity and probably possessed of a good character. The danger is to assume that all people, all children are like that. There are very good reasons why not every child leaves school with golden scrolls, cups and shields, and frankly sometimes it’s not everyone else’s fault; sometimes it’s down to the kids themselves. It’s ludicrously, childishly naive to say that all teenagers would blossom like tulips if it weren’t for the nasty system that exists purely, it seems, to grind them like grist into grain.

‘I reject his analysis of Tudor etiquette, innit’

By the time they get to secondary school, most children have pretty well developed personalities, habits and character; believe me, the clay is thrown a long time before they get to high school, and teachers face the challenge of taking hundreds of diverse representatives of society and making a decent fist of educating them. Let me assure you that many children by that age do not entirely fancy the idea of school, and are delighted to share this fact with you, in ways that range from swearing at you, laziness, up to (and including) violence. And they don’t do this because they are forced to by a system that doesn’t care. They don’t do this because they haven’t been ‘shown how’ to behave. They choose to do it.

Some people start to hop up and down when I suggest this: that teenagers simply need to be shown love and trust, and they will engage with Tolstoy and Curie with gusto; that they, to some extent can’t help themselves; that they are products of a world that wasn’t fair. Let them hop. Disadvantage is a hideous fact of life, and mere poverty doesn’t necessarily reduce to rudeness, violence or playing the thug. By the age of twelve it’s an empty claim to say that children don’t know how to behave. They do, of course they do. Some don’t want to. Til my last breath I’ll believe in freewill, and the fact that we are the captains of our own destiny, or at least the destiny that faces us. We choose how to act and speak, no one else, and we are responsible for our actions. I’ve met (and taught) students from horrendous poverty who worked hard and got the grades because, as one famously said to me, ‘I want to get out.’ 

Jamie is fantastic at talking to people; he had the kids eating out of his righteous rudeboy hand. But one of the appeals he made to them was that, ‘You all feel to some extent that education let you down,’ or words to that extent. That simply isn’t true, almost certainly. What’s probably happened is that they didn’t value education; or thought school was an enormous, three-dimensional version of Facebook, where they could chat to their pals and sell Flapjacks. Friends of mine from third-world backgrounds are appalled by how lightly our children (and their families) often treat free education- in their countries, children face a ten mile walk to school and back, if one exists at all. No books are provided. And I feel vaguely ashamed for our over-privileged, flabby ingrates.

They’re not in the last chance saloon because no one gave them a chance- they’re there because they didn’t recognise a chance when they saw it. David Starkey, in his brattish, awful way was trying to verbalise this, but did so with so little grace that I found myself siding with Malcolm McDowell in If, taking pot shots at the school masters from the roof top.

Teaching is all about expertise

Cruel and unusual.

This was another axiomatic fumble. The idea seemed to be that if only the subject teachers were good enough at what they wanted to teach, then the children would fall into single-filed awe at their mastery. This is far from true. Subject knowledge is a vital part of a teacher’s repertoire, of course- there’s little point being a teacher if you have nothing to teach- but for most teachers, a degree level or equivalent is quite enough to be at least ten steps ahead of the kind of knowledge you’ll need to teach in a classroom. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the majority of GCSE papers. When I started teaching RS years ago, I entered the classroom with a Masters in Philosophy from a decent University and a profound lack of content knowledge about Jewish food laws, or the five pillars of Islam. Petrified at first, I soon found that with a little diligence, I could get on just fine- A-level took more rigour, and a lot of brushing up, but to be educated to one step past the student, and possessed of a little intelligence and professionalism, is enough in most cases to teach a subject at secondary level. Of course, the more knowledge the better, but it’s not a necessary precedent.

But this show seemed to rest on the premise that international experts would magically transform the learning of the unloveliest of NEETS. Wrong, dead wrong. The teachers in this program had an abundance of ability and knowledge in their field- and most of it was superfluous to their needs. You don’t need William bloody Shakespeare to teach a room full of kids with no English GCSEs- you need a good teacher who knows the GCSE syllabus. Anything beyond that was unnecessary, like driving to Tesco in a Lamborghini Gallardo Spider- all that juice in the bonnet but nowhere to put it. So our academic sledgehammers were sent to work on the walnuts, and they found it just as hard to get to the good bits without smashing everything to pieces.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that, without prompting, I would put a tenner on the bet that every one of those kids had barely or never heard of the Olympiad of experts Oliver had lassoed into this project, and consider it very safe indeed. The cultural and intellectual circumference of some children is genuinely frightening- Daley Thomson was a legend when I was ruining my Spectrum 48K on his desperate console game, but he may as well be Plato’s next door neighbour for all the impact his name would have on  most plimsoll-dodging teenagers today. Robert Winston, Alvin Hall, Alastair Campbell….all stalwarts of contemporary culture, all big noises in their own worlds; but there’s nothing like a teenager’s incomprehension to make you realise that you’re only famous if people have heard of you. None of these kids were likely to go, ‘No WAY, I can’t believe the Poet Laureate is going to teach us poetry!’ because most of them won’t know what a Poet Laureate was. Or indeed poetry.

We can’t all talk at once

Behaviour management is, I believe I might have said a few times before, absolutely fundamental to good teaching and learning. If you don’t have the kids behaving reasonably well, then you might as well go home, because they’re not going to learn anything. This doesn’t seem to occur to most people involved in running education, apparently, and the number of times I’ve heard people say that interesting lessons will solve behaviour problems…well, it’s a lot of times, let’s just say that. This was joylessly proven every single lesson in the program as we watched how quickly they were ruined by pointless, self-referential teenage jibber-jabber, as all the big gobs were determined to have their say no matter what. It was deeply uncomfortable to see the apparently lovely Simon Callow start off with them, only to see their attentions dissolve like chocolate in lava after about ten seconds. And then they started arguing. And then they were all telling each other to shut up. And poor Callow is left spluttering at them and being ignored, because he’s not important to them- what’s important is that they get to have their say, and that nobody cusses them.

‘Good weed, white wine, I come alive in the night time.’

It is, I have to say, the world that some of us don’t just visit, but inhabit in our professional careers. I could have told them this for free. I don’t know who acted as consultant on this program, but they were either deliberately ignored for televisual fireworks, or misinterpreted, because only the greenest of rookies would have thought that this experiment would work in a meaningful way. Disruptive pupils can be distracted for a short time by novelty, or by catching their curiosity. But eventually the teacher has to realise that they can’t be entertained every minute of every lesson. Sometimes, learning is just work, in the same way that sometimes training is just lifting weights or running around a track at six in the morning, and that life isn’t always fun.
And that’s when they’ll lose interest, and need to be directed for their greater good. And that means sometimes being strict, and always having rules that everyone has to follow. And the first rule of the classroom is that not everyone can talk at once. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a lesson; you’re just standing in the same room as a crowd of children who happen to be talking to each other.

Nobody can make you behave

David Starkey came a total cropper on this one, and serves him right. Actually I’m quite angry with Starkey, because in many ways what he said echoed my own opinion- that many of the kids had put themselves in that position, that they needed self-discipline, that without the ability to restrain their own egoist desires they would be slaves to their whims, etc. But then he p*ssed all that good will up against the staffroom wall by being so explicitly, wilfully repellent to the children (for God’s sake, he called one of them fat, and called them all failures) that I’m surprised they didn’t turn him into a totem pole. He blew it in an enormous, spectacular way, and it’s no good stalking off in a huff and saying how awful they were. They were- but so was he. His attitude was one of enlightened superiority, but he displayed less manners than they did in the first few minutes. it was excruciating.

The worst part of it is, some will see him representative of the assertive discipline technique, that he is the natural result of a behavioural system that relies on sanctions as well as rewards. He doesn’t- he’s merely one unpleasant particle on the spectrum of that process, and an angry, petulant smear on the windscreen of others who drive more carefully through classroom management. You can be tough and polite; you can be assertive and calm. The kids might well be lucky to have you there, but if they don’t realise it, there’s no point expecting it like some kind of divine right. You have to show them why they should be interested, not rebuke them with insults when they don’t slavishly dance at your every utterance.

‘Bit of Dewey, bit of Bloom…bosh!’

Nobody  can make you do what you don’t want to do; at some level, we have to cooperate with the person controlling us. To get children to behave, they have to know that you care about their education; so much so, in fact, that you’re prepared to use sanctions against anyone who needs some coaxing. With care, rigour and consistency, most children can be engaged with this process. Eventually, the need to punish dwindles as the pupils learn to enjoy the comfort and security of a well-run classroom, and the benefits that it provides to their education. The ones who still won’t comply with this can be dealt with in more selective ways.

Sometimes this means exclusion. Sometimes it means that they slip through the net. But no system is perfect, nor should we expect it to be so. For schools to be well run there have to be sanctions against those who resist social mores. People who rebel against the system within which they operate can expect the system to respond. And that is why many of these children end up as NEETs, or other acronyms. Nobody said life was going to be perfect. Sometimes we have to just do our best and deal with the consequences.

This program wasn’t a failure at all; it was a brilliant way to generate debate about education, and you know you’ve done something special when kids and non-teachers are talking about how schools are run and what it all means. But the crucial problem with Jamie’s Dream School is that it seemed to assume that teaching isn’t a skill at all, but some kind of verb that happens when you turn up to a room full of kids with ties on. Teaching is an art and a craft, not something stapled on to subject knowledge. I’m still learning to be a teacher, and I hope I never stop. Let’s face it, if even Rolf Harris can’t get his classes spellbound with his boyish, divine enthusiasm, then I think we can safely say that expertise alone isn’t enough. Teaching is a profession, not a job, not an accident that occurs when the educated mean the un. Jamie’s Dream School is in Special Measures, as far as I’m concerned, with a notice to improve.

The Head Master, John D’Abbro, has a big job to do, and I’m not sure if he’s up to it; what are the school rules? Are there any? Do the students have any expectations to conform to, or is that merely for the teachers? In other words, is this the Land of Do As You Please for the students, many of whom will have been doing as they pleased for some time? And I fear that after their holiday in Channel Four High School for Narcissists, they’ll find that the rest of the world isn’t that bovvered.

Only time will tell.