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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.’
I’m sure that Richard Starkey is blushing with flattered embarrassment at being told he’s ‘rated’ as a historian.by 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.