|Harlem discovers she’s forgotten her umbrella.|
I’m grieving, because Dream School has withered on the vine; like the closing scene of Grease, everyone has hugged, congratulated each other on how marvellous everything was, and ridden off on a fun ride, or something. Like a rose, its beauty lay in its transience. It is over, and now the edusphere is silent. It’s like when I as a child, and I would stop reading a favourite book before the last page, so that I would always have something to return to. But even the children of Narnia had to go home sometime, and like everyone else who writes about popular education I’ll have to find something else to get excited about. It’s not looking good.
Dream School was always intended to be a lesson, and like currently fashionable idea about real lessons, it concludes with a recap of the aims, or a plenary: what have we learned. There were a lot of people summing up what the project was about- Mr Oliver was the most vocal: ‘This has always been about the ones who have been excluded, who slipped between the cracks.’ And a very noble ambition it is too- but his enormous heart needs to be channelled in a more effective direction, because mere compassion won’t help these kids. That was part of the problem that got them here in the first place. Compassion by itself is blind, and can lead us to make decisions that harm more than help.
For example, take Angelique, who’s been sparring with Alastair Campbell again (and by sparring, I mean ‘telling him to go fuck himself’). Last week he was planning a trip to Number 10, but he was adamant that only those who could behave should go, which seems pretty reasonable to me, and probably the rest of the civilised world. Next lesson, Angelique goes off like Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park, channels Harlem, and storms off like a pitbull. So Campbell, not unreasonably, canned her from the trip.
Now that looks, to me, like the most straightforward moral transaction imaginable: be good, and get rewarded; flip me the bird, and wave bye-bye to Christmas. Who wants to take a car crash like that to the heart of the British Government? On a day out to meet the PM? Every principle of merit and desert demands that someone who deliberately blows up as a hobby (or who, at the very least, can’t keep a lid on their lip) shouldn’t get the candy. What kind of lesson would it teach them, for such a person to be rewarded no matter what the behaviour? Such a strategy teaches students that actions have no consequence, and that virtue and vice will be equally regarded in the world. What madness.
Angelique was in proper apologetic mode: she even sent Campbell an email to apologise, fired it off, and crossed her fingers that he would forgive. And spectacularly, joyously, he didn‘t. He walked into her classroom, and she simpered up to him, meek as milk, and told him how sorry she was, and could she come?
And he said, ‘No.’
I nearly did a star jump. She looked totally confused, like she didn’t understand what had just happened. Hadn’t she done what normally works? Act like a bitch, apologise later on, and carry on like nothing has happened? Campbell, who is more comfortable engineering international genocide, wasn’t moved, and just repeated to her how rude and obnoxious she was. I have to hand it to him, he’s my favourite Lord of Destruction. He would, I’ve already said, make a cracking teacher, as long as he could restrain himself from all that beastly slaughter and such.
No wonder Angelique was confused. This kind of appeasement goes on every day in schools across the country: kids act as they please, and increasingly the school reaction isn’t to apply punitive pressure to the pupil in order to deter further outbursts, but to attempt some kind of wet reconciliation, restorative justice, or even worse, just pay lip service to manners, accept a watery apology, and move on- until it all happens again and again. That approach, while well meant, lies at the heart of the current behaviour crisis in education. Kids cannot believe their luck when they get away with rudeness and bad behaviour, and they cannot believe how stupid and weak we are when we fail to treat misbehaviour seriously.
I’m not a big fan of ‘student voice’ (in the sense that I think it’s demonic and needs a stake through the heart, and it must die, die, and die again), but that doesn’t mean that students can’t tell us anything; and one of the most consistent pieces of feedback I’ve ever had from my students (especially when I was starting out, and about as effective as ice cream toilet paper) was that when kids get rude, you need to step up to them- maybe not physically (we can all dream) but structurally- don’t ignore bad behaviour; tackle it head on, set detentions, send out, call home, the whole nine yards. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away, it just breeds and multiplies and swarms.
Danielle said it best when Mary Beard asked her opinion on what to do with misbehaviour. ‘Send them out!’ she shouted, without a microsecond of hesitation. Because she knew exactly what to do, even if the current educational establishment seems to be suffering a collective loss of bottle, nerve, cojones and spine.
|‘D’Abbs, mate! I found one of your bollocks!’|
Of course, at Dream School (motto: Let no bad deed go unrewarded), the dice are loaded towards the side that says, Forgive them Father, they know exactly what they do. D’Abbs was all over Campbell like Johnny Cochrane Junior, rather than the Head Teacher role he allegedly occupies.
‘Angelique’s devastated,’ he bubbled, while Campbell looked on like a stone and dreamed of drowning puppies in a barrel. I bet she was devastated. I bet.
‘I want to see them all through Dream School, ‘ he pleaded. ‘She’s been excluded all her life, and if you exclude her again, you’ll just confirm what everyone else has always done. I want her to see that adults are compassionate, and can give you another chance.’ Then he made the ‘seal’ face. Or, this being school, it should probably be a SEAL face. Whatever. Campbell was probably wondering how such an enormous blouse could run a trip to McDonalds, let alone a school for drop-outs.
Could he actually be serious? I asked myself as he suggested that Campbell should go back on his word, and allow such a clearly belligerent and thoughtless person to dictate the rules of the classroom. Was he actually putting pressure on a teacher to not have classroom rules? Was he suggesting that anyone should be allowed to go on trips, no matter how badly behaved, because they should always be given a chance? I’m afraid he exactly was. I imagine how society would be run if such sentiments were to bleed into the courtrooms, the roads, the prisons of the world. I imagine it would be a lot like Hell.
Then he signed off with the adieu of the cowardly lion. ‘I’ll stiill support you if you say you don’t want her to come.’ Which is something every line manager with no spine says when they want to absolve themselves of blame, responsibility and guilt. Et tu, Pilate.
Which is exactly what he wasn’t doing. He wasn’t supporting the classroom teacher. He was implying that the teacher’s system of discipline was wrong. That the teacher would be at fault if he continued to punish this girl (or, more specifically, not reward her. He wasn’t punishing her; he was simply applying simple logic to the rules he imposed on his class). He was trying to get him to change his mind. He was telling him that it would be the school at fault if it didn’t include all students at all costs.
This policy (inclusion) has been the ruin of many a classroom, teacher and student, as schools tie themselves in knots to avoid removing the desperadoes from the classrooms, all in the vain name of social inclusion, because it would be better- it is suggested- that those on the fringes of behavioural acceptability are best handled by maintaining them in mainstream environments. Meanwhile, the vast majority of well behaved, mainstream students, suffer irreparable harm to their lessons and their lives. But heigh- ho, that’s the price we pay for inclusion. Which is another diabolic invention of Satan, incidentally.
Later on, Deirdre- sorry, D’Abbs– ‘supports’ Campbell some more by telling Angelique that if she really behaves in her next lesson, Campbell might change his mind, and that he hopes he does, and that he’s tried to talk him round. It was embarrassing. Seriously, man, grow a pair and support your staff. All it looks like is you backing up Angelique against her teacher. ‘Support‘ my righteous ass.
|‘No, she can’t. Kill her!’|
Sorry for the rant, but that kind of behaviour is exactly why there is, not only a behaviour crisis, but as the wonderful sociologist Frank Furedi suggests, an authority crisis in contemporary society. Adults colluding with children to undermine other adults? An infinity of second chances, no matter what the rules are? Sanctions over ruled in the short sighted name of supporting children, when in reality all it does is teach them an untenable, unrealistic value system that doesn’t exist in the world outside Dream School? That kind of lesson only reinforces the emotional and mental crutches that these children have constructed for them, until they carry on the construction themselves. It’s not enough just to believe in them; we have to believe that we know what’s good for them, and sometimes that means taking their toys away.
The differences between Dream School and real school
Alastair Campbell, who has transformed himself in this series into an unlikely John the Baptist of education, railing against the iniquities of Herod, produced one of the most sensible paragraphs in the entire series when he said, ‘It’s important to not go away from this showing that this is how you reach children, because in reality this isn’t anything like how real schools operate,’ or words to that effect. He remarked that, whereas in Dream School, students had acres of time to talk with their teachers after class (the apparently miraculous missing ingredient to Nanakwame’s education), in real schools, teachers have to…er, go teach other lessons. In other words, they have a full time job to do, not just a guest appearance in educational never-never land. Of course, we should expect nothing less from Campbell, who is neither stupid, not ignorant of the dangers of undermining the teaching profession.
Another issue is that of class sizes: Jamie and D’abbs were fond of repeating the ‘No child left behind’ mantra when it came to exclusions and trips. But did you notice that the average class size appeared to be somewhere between seven and twelve? What were the other eight doing? Presumably they were working on their portfolios and learning another language. Starkey had Jamie salivating with pleasure in this last episode, with his ground-breaking approach to teaching them thinking skills, not just content (which is a false dichotomy anyway, as skills and content are impossible to separate. There- decades of educational debate solved in a sentence. You’re welcome), in a circle of students working on laptops and critiquing each others’ work (which is actually a useful exercise if done properly). How did he get so few in the room? Remember when Andrew Motion ‘uninvited’ a few students from his poetry circle? I suspect the same thing has happened here. What happened to ‘No child left behind?’
The reality for all teachers in the state sector is that we don’t have a right to refuse to teach, so we’re stuck with the good, the bad and the ugly. Which means we need to have rules in our room, which leads to sanctions, exclusions and removals. Which, for a minority leads to expulsion (I know they’re called permanent exclusions these days, because nobody likes the word expel any more, just like we’re not supposed to mark in red ink either- see previous blogs for a detonation of both dogmas). And that’s where all that ‘falling between the cracks’ happens that Jamie frets about. Believe me, very few people get permanently excluded because they were misunderstood angels. It’s easier to build a stepladder from shaving foam than it is to get excluded from school. If they get chucked out, there is almost universally a very, very good reason, and they’re normally not ones you go, ‘aww, that’s a shame’ over.
The Teachers’ Last stand
It was interesting to see the celebrity teachers wrapping things up in remarkably similar ways to conventional schools: Robert Winston made them sit a test on what they’d learned (no results available at time of press; I’m sure if they’d been any good we’d have known all about it, accompanied to the theme from Chariots of Fire and lots of slow-mo chest bumping and crying.
Daley Thompson managed not to hug anyone this week and organised what was almost a school sports day versus Mill Hill School (a nice co-ed boarding school in North London, or as the voiceover intoned, ‘a posh private school’). Can you imagine the fuss if Dream School had won? Alas, it wasn’t to be; I can only guess that the DS Olympiads had to have fag breaks every five minutes. Sorry, I’m being churlish.
Andrew Motion organised the closest thing we had to an end of term performance (bad show, Simon Callow- where was our Romeo and Juliet, with Harlem as the dainty heroine? A missed chance, sir) when he organised the poetry recital. In amongst the Hallmark limericks and rap operas, there was a moment when Henry basically just threw the concept of poetry aside and used the performance as a cover for him to say how much he loved his parents, which went down, as you can imagine, a storm.
|No caption required.|
Then there was the matter of the portfolios; this was in lieu of an actual certificate of any meaning of course, and to be fair, wasn’t without value- it gave them something to aim for, and provided a record of work. I’m not sure too many employers would be dazzled by a home printed certificate that said ‘I climbed Pen-Y-Fan’, but it was a start. I suspect that’s why Unis ask for..you know, GCSEs and that.
Harlem went through her interview process with Rankin and Campbell and provided a reminder of why Angelique is a mere upstart compared to her leviathan surliness and self-righteousness, by essentially sitting there, scowling and looking like she actually hated the pair of them. No, hate is the wrong word- she was totally apathetic, indifferent to them. Her emotional palette consists of two tones- feigned disinterest, and rage. Two qualities that I imagine will stand her in good stead when she applies to be a bomb disposal expert or ambassador to Japan.
Starkey attempted to kidnap Danielle (who was my hero of week three) by taking her round his old alma mater Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. That was nice of him, wasn’t it? I notice that Harlem wasn’t involved in that beautiful piece of social mobility. I can’t think why. Oh wait a minute- I can.
Great to see Jazzy B and Richard Starkey having a barney- Starkey thought that Connor wouldn’t amount to much unless he could learnt to listen to people (which is true) and Mr B thought that Starkey could do with a few lessons in listening himself. Starkey begged to differ, explaining that he was at a different stage in his life, where he had a position of authority and an expectation of deference. JB thought that nobody listened to him, and thought he was a bit of a ‘gas bag’. History, posterity, and the program makers didn’t share with us his reply. Priceless. It was the kind of celebrity mismatch you normally only get from ‘IACGMOOH’.
Another great moment when Alastair Campbell and Cherie Blair had their first on-screen meeting at Dream School; wonderful to see the Big Beasts circling each other, watching the pulsing jugular veins on each other’s necks and waiting for the right moment to lunge.
‘Do you know where I’m going on Monday?’ said Campbell, hiding a snarl behind a smile.
‘Where, darling?’ she replied, wondering if she’d left the children in the gingerbread oven.
‘Your old hunting ground,’ he replied.
‘And yours,’ she replied, and I felt a cold hand clutch my heart as I witnessed the two predators acknowledge each other, like old foes. Terrifying.
Of course, the alleged highlight of this week was the visit to number 10. Much has been written about this already, and I don’t think that, educationally, it was particularly significant; it was a school trip- the kids were all seemingly well behaved, and the person who ended up being cheekiest to the majesty of the state was Campbell himself, when he crowed at George Osborne as he signed autographs, ‘He has to go now and cut your mum’s benefits,’ with a dragon’s smile. Compared to that (and what a joy it was to witness Osborne’s pique), having their shirts hanging out (which they nearly all were) and chewing gum (Harlem, of course) was pretty small beer.
Of course, Cameron made mince meat out of them, because just being drop outs didn’t mean that they were articulate or actually confident enough to take the old Etonian Ogre on in his cave, where all his power came from. Besides, if they had japed about like idiots then I imagine it wouldn’t have taken much persuading for an SAS marksman to waste a bullet or two in the name of national security. (‘Who the FUCK you think you are, Daniel Carmeron, fuckin’ Prime Minister FUCK.’ Bang!)
There was one missed opportunity, though; when Jourdelle started the conversation with D-Cam by asking ‘How many GCSEs do you think we, as a collective group, have?’ The Great Satan dodged the bullet with practised ease. I was praying for him to snap, lean back in his chair, pick at a nail absent-mindedly and say, ‘Oh, I dunno. None? Fuckin’ waste men.’
But Jamie’s still not happy. ‘There are still a couple of them we’ve let down,’ he says, mournfully, as if a million pounds of free, Disneyland education somehow wasn’t enough of a gift for his crew. There are many things we should all feel guilty for, but believe me, Jamie, this isn’t one of them. I think we can officially say that you tried. Honestly, don’t beat yourself up. Try being a teacher, and watching kids leave every year with less than they could have achieved. You never learn to like it, but you learn that you can’t save the whole world; and sometimes you can’t even save the bit right in front of you, not if it doesn’t want to be saved.
As everything has a beginning, so too must it contain the seeds of its own demise. The students were all given scholarships- of course. No matter what they had done, they all won the first prize. Which begs the question; why should they bother? Seriously- if no effort and every effort are greeted with the same reward, then why should people struggle? I believe Marxism wrestles with this same basic problem. I don’t begrudge them for a second, as long as we appreciate that this isn’t education, this is a birthday party, where everyone leaves with a bag of goodies.
And so, back to the real world. How did our class of 2011 do? Well, as can be expected, with everyone winning access to the scholarship funds, everyone had a chance to buy themselves back into education. Out of the twenty young guns, Nanakwame got a conditional offer to Uni, Angelique, Aysha, Laytoya, Carl, Jourdelle, went back to taking GCSEs and BTECs, Jenny and Michael found spots in Jamie’s restaurants, Georgia went to the London School of Photography (motto: we will take your money, cheers), Connor and Danielle went for courses with the National Youth Theatre and are looking for portals into acting, Chloe enrolled at the Jemma Kidd School of Make Up, and so on. Oh yes, and Jamal is ‘hoping’ to take a course in make-up, so at least he doesn’t want for ambition.
Nothing wrong with all that, and quite a lot right, of course. Did going to Dream School make a difference? The scholarship certainly did- money opens a lot of doors. And of course, being exposed to different careers and life experiences is invaluable for helping a teenager find direction. But school already does that- the difficulty is that most of the teenagers who don’t ‘get the benefit’ from school can’t see that at the time.
|‘Why…can’t …she go?’|
And that’s not the fault of school. It’s not the fault of a system that doesn’t care. It’s not the fault of the mysterious ‘they’ that Harlem blames for her every discomfort. It’s their own fault. The blame has to stop somewhere. Don’t blame the world for your own lack. Encouraging the attitude that nothing is ever our fault is one of the key reasons these lovely children have ended up where they are. The end credits informed us that 8 of the Dream Students had been given professional mentors from Ingeus and Deloitte. Who they? A ‘provider of employment-related support duties’, according to their website, in partnership with…the Jobcentre. ‘Helping the long term unemployed get back into the world of work,’ to paraphrase their website.
The ones that grasped the opportunity (like Danielle, like Jourdelle, like Jenny and a few others) absolutely deserve the doors that open in response to their enthusiasm and character, and good luck to them all.
A final couple of differences between Dream School and Real School
Look closely at the credits: how many schools do you know that have a paramedic? Or TWO food stylists? Or indeed a clinical psychologist? No bloody teachers, mind you. Why on earth would you need them? And if you’re wondering where all the dosh came from to fund, among other things, Robert Winston’s Frankenstein experiments, or Jayne Ponter’s Biosphere, look no further than a £30K grant from the Wellcome Trust. Which is nice, all that money, isn’t it? PS, loved it when at the end of Winston’s last science lesson, they all went up and bumped him, and someone obviously asked if he was coming to the end of term party. ‘Oh, I’ll be in China by then,’ he muttered. Yeah, mate, I say that kind of thing too. ‘Sorry, I’m in China then,’ I say.
This was, start to finish, a total blinder. Mr Oliver, I salute you. And to Storm Theunissen, the series producer, I salute your fabulous name. As a school, this institution wouldn’t last five minutes. But as a profile raiser for the NEET generation, it was gripping. I think we should see the Dream School for what it was- an extended internship, rather than a school of any real kind. I hope Oliver continues it; this time he can cut out the middleman (the series, the school) and just create his own scholarship system for kids like Danielle who have missed out on education through no fault of their own and really deserve a second chance. Or maybe he’ll go ahead with his own Free School, as he’s mused in the Nationals. After this experience, he certainly couldn’t do worse than many others, and probably a lot better than many.
|‘Nah, mate. I’ll be in bleedin’ China, innit?’|
It’ll be hard for me to let Dream School go; I have slavishly watched every minute of it. And I have to admit, I absolutely loved it. As I said in a previous post, not because I think it offers any real new solutions to the educational crisis (it doesn’t) or that it has improved in any way on what already goes on in thousands of good schools up and down the country (it hasn’t). It has almost no lessons to teach the teaching profession because we have to teach children exactly like Harlem and Angelique and Connor every day of our lives. And like ER doctors, we can’t save them all.
We try our best, teach them what we can, and cross our fingers. That’s the nature of a national school sector. It can’t be tailored to every child, because we don’t have the time or money. It can’t indulge their every whim, because not only do we still not have the time and money, to do so would actually be harmful to them. So we reprimand and we reward; we set boundaries, we encourage, we lead, we educate, we try to set an example, and sometimes we blush with pleasure when caterpillars turn to butterflies. The point of education isn’t to teach them that life owes them a living: it’s to teach them everything we know about the world and hope that they make a good job of running it before they pass on what they know to their children.
We are the custodians of our planet. Teachers, parents, and a million other professions are the stewards of our cultures, our technologies, our successes and failures. Jamie Oliver has, yet again, done a huge service to everyone by raising the profile of education, and bravely attempting to see if there are any ways to get everyone on the bus. It’s not possible- there will always be people who fail, as everyone fails from time to time. There will always be people who fall through the cracks. And of course it is perfectly right to try to keep helping more and more, in the hope that we can make a difference. But we shouldn’t claim that, because the system isn’t perfect, it must be broken. Actually it’s not. It runs pretty well, for the most part. And until people themselves are perfect, we have to live in a world where not everyone comes first.
Thanks to everyone who made this series.
And a last word to Harlem.