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Jamie’s Dream School 6: Not everyone gets to fly the plane.

‘I’m really worried about my portfolio

I wonder if the program makers were aware that this week’s episode (‘No Child Left Behind’) was named after the 2001 Act of Congress that required all states to provide standardised tests if they wanted to qualify for federal funding. As Charles Murray put it, ‘The law of the land is that every child is to be above average.’ If they were, then they have a strange way of matching title to content; this week we saw the continuation of the project’s commitment to reinventing school to re-engage twenty Prima Donnas and Desperados through a combination of no perceivable rules, bottomless resources, celebrity supply teachers and a legitimised smoker’s corner (hardly makes it worth bothering with then, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, they still find the energy to ‘engage’ with their Benson and Hedges).

This week saw the abyss of reality start to peek through the blinds, like dawn rising in Transylvania, and even Jamie acknowledged he was worried about what was going to happen to them after Dream School threw its mortar board in the air. It’s episode 6, and Jamie’s been thinking.

‘I’m worried that the basic problem is behaviour.’

Nora brings it.

And the Prodigal Son comes home. After watching his twenty Charlies huff and mince and scowl at the privation of luxury, celebrity, personalised education for the past month, you’ll have to forgive me for pointing out that this gun has been smoking since the minute Harlem first opened her gob to say something undoubtedly angry and self-justifying. (‘Harlem, could you pass me the salt?’ ‘No way, I’ll fuckin’ lay you out right here, salt, fuck you salt, the FUCK you sayin’ salt shit to me for I’ll lay you out I fuckin’ will…’). Of course it’s behaviour that’s the key problem here. Not their particular point on the spectrum of dysfuntionality, not the deprivation or the construction of their families, not the way they’re being taught, not whether the teacher ‘gets them’ or ‘understands them,’ not whether their needs are being met, or the lessons are fun enough, or long enough, or short enough, or taught in a field, in a biosphere, in the Globe or at the top of Pen Y Fan by someone who ‘really, really believes in them.’

None of that matters, none of it is essential- in fact in the wrong proportions, some of it is actually harmful. No, the single biggest axiom of student success is how they behave in the room. If they won’t sit reasonably still, listen reasonably well and follow reasonable instructions, then you have nothing; nothing at all. Call it manners, call it social skills, call it anything you want- that’s the first, the last, the everything of being able to teach students. And every teacher realises it the first time they walk into a room of kids who, believe it or not, would prefer not to do calculus or read The Grapes of Wrath.

Some try to sidestep this problem by claiming that the structure of the classroom and schools themselves cause this bad behaviour- that if children were only allowed to guide their own education then their natural curiosity and love of learning would lead them to academic excellence. This is, of course, mentalism of the highest order, brought to you by such goons as the American theorist John Dewey, in what I can only assume was some kind of belated revenge for the War of Independence.

It’s behaviour.Crack that, and you have a chance. Crack it not, and it’ll crack you.

Bring on the Dinner Ladies

So what does Jamie do after this epiphany? After all, his Head Master seems to be allergic to issuing sanctions (I’d like to point out that Harlem got two days at home for the accumulation of aggression and intimidation she wages each week. That’ll teach her), so where do we go from here? Of course, there’s only one thing for it- get a dinner lady to teach them cooking. Brilliant. And not just any old dinner lady, Nora , last seen scowling in Jamie’s School Dinners series. (Incidentally I love how she was introduced at first as just ‘Nora’, indicating a level of familiarity and celebrity enjoyed only by Madonna, Squiggle and Bianca from Eastenders. Even Lady Gaga has a title).

Of course, the presence of a middle aged woman with an accent shouting at them about how untidy they were didn’t exactly transform anyone’s lives. And why should it? I’m sure she’s a fine, competent woman, but at the risk of repeating myself throughout my reviews (I prefer to call it a theme) she’s not a trained teacher. None of them are. Every week we have a non-teaching Assistant Head, a non teaching, teaching staff, all scratching their heads and saying, ‘Golly, they seem to be mucking about.’ You don’t bloody say.

Do people think that teachers just turn up, juice up the Interactive Whiteboard, and play DVDs until the bell rings? It appears that this is, indeed, how our profession is perceived, and the blame can probably be laid at a number of doors- successive education ministries run by people who have never actually been involved in education in any meaningful way, a decline in adult authority, a growing suspicion that adult authority (upon which the teacher’s role rests) is somehow coercive and evil. So I feel the need to get up from the sofa, waive my tiny fist and shout at the telly, ‘We’re teachers! It’s a job! We deal with this kind of thing all the time!’ It amazes me how people routinely have the balls to preach from the mountain top about anything in education, from curriculum to teaching styles, without any experience in the field at all, apart from having once been a student themselves. Teaching is a skill, a craft, and a field; it may surprise some people, but we have actually dealt with rudeness, apathy, aggression and disruption before. Seriously, we have.

And they’re prepared to do so because everyone thinks it’s a piece of piss. Really, they must do, because you don’t get many people phoning up NASA and saying, ‘Nah, mate, you want to differentiate your electron resonance a bit more if you want to find a super particle. Long wave variable interference? On a Monday? You’re ‘avin a laugh!’ If you want your boiler fixed, call a plumber. Want somebody taught? Call a _______ (I’ll let you fill that bit in, in an exciting new teaching style designed to exploit your curiosity, activate your left hemisphere and develop your emotional literacy).

I’m your Personal teacher: Reach out and touch me

Next week’s Head of Maths.

Anyway. The other theme (as the title suggests) is ‘reaching’ the students who haven’t ‘engaged’ yet. I don’t know what all this ‘reaching’ fuss is- they’re right there, on camera, having fags, sulking, swearing whenever they can’t think of anything else to say, and describing everything as ‘boring’. See? I could reach them in a second. Georgia and Rikki exemplify this charming position I can only describe as amoebic. Rikki appears to have a bit of a breakthrough (and I use that term very loosely, in a way that is only visible through an electron microscope) later on when he actually manages to write two hundred words for his mission statement (which bizarrely enough isn’t actually a mission statement, but a rather uninspiring explanation to future employers that his GCSEs are a bit rubbish. But, small victories, eh, Daley?)

Georgia (or at least her TV edit) starts off apathetic and manages to shred every drop of viewer sympathy as she goes along by her petulant, casual egocentrism; with two days to go, she bugs her biddable mother to take her home, and plants her ass in the family car. She won’t budge, and refuses to come out. (I should point out that she’s already had her confrontation with D’Abbs- ‘I don’t have time to deal with this, Georgia,’ he said, channelling John Rambo and Oliver Cromwell, before walking away. That’ll teach her).

‘I want to be happy, and if I stay there, I won’t be happy. I’m going to stay in this car until you take me home and you can have that on your conscience. Well fucking done.’

This, to her mother.
While she has a fag.
In the car.

The words National and Service sprang to mind, unbidden. So Mum takes her home, and Georgia drops off the radar, hopefully forever, unless she reincarnates as some kind of avatar of apathy and peevishness.

Jamie receives the (suspiciously and conveniently filmed) news from Alastair Campbell that the kids can come to 10 Downing Street to meet D-Cam (is this a last minute attempt to apply sanctions? Sorry), but because this is vaguely the real world, he says that he won’t take any that are going to embarrass him. I like that- the understanding that inside the bubble biosphere of the Dream School, the kids can have an infinite number of chances, but step one millimetre outside onto the pavement and you’re lucky enough to get one chance, let alone a fistful, and blowing an opportunity leaves you with nothing but regret, not a chat with D’Abbs and a sad face from Jamie. Speaking of whom, Basher D’Abbs comments to Jamie, ‘This is what we dreamed about…that we need to make some changes in our education system…and this is our best opportunity.’

I don’t know what changes he’s talking about, but if it involves schools with no consequences, no sanctions or punishments, based entirely on rewards and praise and forgiveness, where pupils can do as they like in the hope that one or two of them will descend from their marble roosts and allow themselves to be ‘reached’, then I can only hope that David Cameron has his Bullshit Sunglasses on the day they come for Tiffin.

No matter how hard you might want to.

After the Battle of Nora’s Kitchen, Jamie sounds glum. ‘My first get tough measure hasn’t worked,’ he says, as I rub my eyes and wonder if I missed it. And Nora provides some of the best lines of the program:

‘They think someone owes them something. You’ve brought them into a lovely world and it don’t exist.’

She’s a wise one, that Nora- she’s the first one to express the plain, unvarnished truth; that it isn’t school that’s failed these kids. For a variety of reasons, they’ve failed school. That doesn’t make them write-offs, or untouchables, or chaff, or vermin. It makes them human. And humans make mistakes and get on with it. Some of them have. Many of them haven’t, and have blown Dream School in exactly the same way they did Real School. Jamie acknowledges this when he admits to them that he sees ‘patterns’ in their behaviour that holds them back. Yes, it’s called character. How many chances does someone get before we admit that it isn’t more chances that some people need; it’s the ability to reflect on what failure means, and what they’re going to do about it.

The new celebrity teacher this week is David Templeman Adams, the businessman and explorer (it says here) who takes them off to do a bit of climbing through South Wales. They display the reluctance of condemned men on their way to the gallows, and Georgia decided it was all shit and pointless before she took a step. Mind you, that appears to be her default opinion for anything unexperienced, so I imagine it’s a pretty crowded category of event for her.

DTA drags them up the hill, and hearteningly enough, they like it when they get to the top. The point of this jolly is to teach them the value of something that takes effort to achieve, which is fair enough, but it takes more than a weekend in Wales to drill that kind of message home- it requires living it, reflecting upon it, and assimilating it into your attitude. Still, it’s worth a try. And I must say, having helped run Duke of Edinburgh camping expeditions for a few years, it’s always worth a chuckle when you see kids packing for a walk up the Welsh mountains with hair straighteners and two-litre bottles of Pepsi. Wait until their Skittles run out.

Angelique (who apparently covets Harlem’s tiara for unconcealed rage and venom) behaves herself on the trip, leading Jamie to say, ‘This is the Angelique we want to see- Jekyll, not Hyde’. But that’s the problem- these aren’t two people; these are two parts of an integrated whole. We don’t scold ‘bad’ Angelique and praise the good one- and we certainly can’t separate the behaviour from the person. Actions flow from character; they are integral to each other.

‘I got a bigger mention here than on the box.’

Poor old Michael Vaughan; Captain of the England Cricket Team for several years, and all he gets is ten seconds of telly time at the Dream School. Presumably nobody stormed out of his lessons or told him to f*ck off.

More successful, of course, is Cherie Booth Blair (nee Sauron) who gets another bite of the cherry this week. Possibly because her voice is hoarse (presumably from swallowing whole children that got lost in the Enchanted Woods, or gargling holy water), she reverts to the lazy teacher standby of ‘having a debate’ (we’ve all done it. Well. Maybe not in maths). Only, this being dream school, the guest speaker isn’t just any old rentagob from the local council. No, it’s John, who apparently took an axe to his landlady and spent time in the Big House for his trouble. How absolutely charming.

What makes John even more interesting is that he’s a man with a mission now. Not for him the mundane life of a serial axe murderer, oh no. Now he campaigns for prisoner’s rights, and Cherie’s brought him in to host a discussion on lag voting (‘John went to prison for manslaughter, and when he was there he didn’t think it was right that he was denied the vote,’ said Cherie, apparently without irony. Poor John. Life is so unfair in prison, isn’t it?).

The debate ended with Cherie hurriedly summing up a slim majority against Prisoner Voting Rights. ‘So this is an issue that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer,’  she said. Which is the kind of soft-headed, wishy washy thinking that makes people distrust lawyers and all vile creatures generally. No right answer, is there? How terribly, fashionably post modern. It’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it? A bit like the idea that anyone can teach, and subject content isn’t as important as learning emotional skills and such- it’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it? I shudder at such moral and physical relativism, and education shudders.

We finished the week with a nice cup of tea and all the parents. Angelique blew a gasket at Alastair Campbell, who took it in his stride and said, ‘No skin off my scales; off you pop,’ or words to that effect. You have to hand it to him; he may have been partially instrumental in genocide, but he’d make a terrific classroom teacher. And I’m serious about that. Gobby little shrews like Angelique and Harlem don’t even register on his radar.

‘One-legged arse kickers…hmm..’

It’s nearly the end of the Dream for the kids. The experiment lurches from comedy to comedy, but I (unlike many people blogging, tweeting and writing in the edusphere) still hold Mr Oliver in high esteem. It’s brilliant that he’s got so many people talking about these issues. But as he himself admits ‘School is about engaging children- ALL children- and there are still children slipping between the gaps in MY school.’ That’s him, slowly realising that ambition, compassion and enthusiasm aren’t enough to get everyone learning if they really don’t want to. 

God knows what I’ll blog about when it finishes.

Quotes of the week:

‘My head feels totally clear- you don’t think about anything.’ Emma, at the top of Pen-Y Fan, not realising that you don’t have to climb 2000 metres in order to achieve that state of bliss, not at Jamie’s Dream School.

‘I’m not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed.’ Angelique, racing up my charts.

Jamie’s Dream School 5: When I grow up, I wanna be famous

‘Here. W*nk into this.’

‘I just made a sea urchin come! Fank you! FANK you!’

I had to get that one out of the way, because not only is it one of the unlikeliest of word combinations I can imagine, but it’s also one of the least likely inspirational moments you would expect. Still, you takes your victories where you can.

And speaking of small victories, Robert Winston clearly knew what he was doing when he tried to come up with a student activity that they would be good at, enjoy, and get their attention, when he asked them to have a w*nk into a jar and bring it in to school (As Jamie said, ‘As long as we engage the kids, that’s all that matters.’). To be fair, he was probably asking some world class experts when he did so. I’m not sure if it’s a tactic I would use too regularly- I teach Philosophy- but whatever tool gets the job done, I suppose. I remember when I was at school, we pricked our thumbs and looked at red blood cells, but the Twitter generation would clearly find that passée, so their own man-jam it is, and I’m gripped by a moment of feeling very old suddenly.

This week’s episode was focussed on what was going to happen next- what were the Dream Students going to do after Dream School, apart from dream? The school has been a microcosm for many of them- an enormous rush of learning experiences and opportunities whizzing past them like comets, to be succeeded by the empty void of careless space, just like real school…unless they can line something up afterwards. This is the time of year, as we approach the examination months, that many students at the end of their school careers switch off, suddenly realising that there’s no golden future waiting for them, ready to drop through the letterbox. It’s a sad time in some ways, as you can see kids, careless for over a decade in some instances, get the fear, as they suddenly realise that the future has been bearing down on them like a steam train, and now it’s nearly too late to get out of the way. It can be a struggle keeping them switched on. Or awake. Or in the room.

And of course, for the other kids, the fear is the switch they need; I’ve seen kids go from nought to sixty in five seconds flat, and miracles happen like Saul. And some kids never needed the fear- they built their castles on rock long before.

There’s fear in the air at Castle Oliver. There must be; they’re already putting portfolios together, presumably including everything they’ve achieved at the Dream School, which for some of them probably include golden nuggets like, ‘Pissed about,’ and ‘Flounced out of the classroom because someone looked at me funny, yeah.’ Employers love that kind of stuff.

There was a beautiful conversation between Aysha and Robert Winston, when she asked him about his early ambitions.

Destroyer of spare time. And joysticks.

‘When did you know you first wanted to be a scientist?’ said Aysha.
‘Oh, when I was about seven,’ replied Winston.
‘Is it?’ she said, in that curious manner of people for whom English is both a first and second language. Winston (presumably gritting his teeth, trying to resist saying, ‘Yes…it was.’) was then probed more deeply by our junior Paxman.
‘Have you cured anything?’ Winston, having to attempt to explain that cures are really the end product of years of research and thousands of scientists, millions of tests, and the the result of an enormous collaborative process where no one person really ‘cures’ anything, did his best.
‘Er, yes,…I think that together with others…we have probably contributed….’ etc etc.
Aysha: ‘Well, that’s better than nothing.’ I imagine she thought she was consoling him.
Robert Winston, FMedSci, FRSA, FRCP, FRCOG, member of the House of Lords: ‘….right.’ And then he went home to cry alone as he wondered where his life had gone.

Simon Callow is still banging away, trying to get them into Romeo and Juliet, and probably wishing by this point that he had gone for invasive oral surgery as a preference to motivating and articulating this raggedy bunch of opportunity dodgers. Two of the kids just upped sticks and left without telling him, and half the kids got annoyed with the other half for slowing things down or not participating. Just like real schools, really.
‘They’re so vulnerable and needy,’ he said afterwards. ‘So set in their patterns. And they don’t know…what’s good for them.’

Which is exactly right. Which is why, since time immemorial we have enjoyed the intuitively correct process of adults teaching children, guiding them through the possibilities of the world, on the grounds that we might have a valid claim to having walked the ground before them, and are aware of the potholes and shortcuts. Of course, I’m aware that there is a significant movement in education that believes children should be the instigators of their own education, learn what they want, when they want, how they want. I reserve the right to refer to such people as ‘vegetables’. Adults in general do know better than children what’s good for them. It’s a paradigm that’s endured for millennia because it works. They may kick and fuss at the restriction, but ultimately it’s to their own good. The saddest, wisest quote of the week, perhaps the series, came from Jenny, the apparently bright but GCSE-less protochef, who spent half of the last year of school excluded from lessons because she couldn’t get on with teachers:

‘I couldn’t do what I wanted to do,’ she muses, when asked why she acted so badly. ‘So I don’t do anything now.’

And a third of the Earth was burnt…’

That wisdom from the mouth of a babe is pivotal; we restrict ourselves from immediate reward (long lies in, telling the teacher exactly what we think) in order to accumulate some greater future gain. But children tend not to possess such a long-term perspective. Why should they? Their perspective is by definition much shorter- they haven’t travelled so far as to be able to see a long road behind them to give them perspective on where they’re going. That’s why adults need to supply them with it. In fact, I feel like banging my head against the Ottoman at the very thought that I have to defend this axiomatic principle. But there it is: giving children too much freedom too soon leads to disaster, and for some of them at the Dream School, it’s probably too late for them to do anything about it soon.

This week was much more about work experience, and making contacts. Jamie correctly identifies one problem for these kids is that they don’t have any connections and contacts. This is hardly news of course: that people who know people tend to get more opportunities than those who don’t. As Chris Rock famously said, is there anyone alive who didn’t get a job at some point because they were recommended by a friend? This practise isn’t restricted to the elite; it’s universal, so before we jump onto our high horses, perhaps we should remember that.

‘C’mere and give teacher a hug!’

Of course, one of the main ways in whack this school experiment can help the kids is by Fast Tracking them into perfect storms of networking and back scratching- Jourdelle has Alvin Hall mentoring him, Carl is forging links with Jazzie B, Daley Thompson is helping Jake get into sport college, and Chloe got work experience from the surgical team that attended Winston’s lessons. You’d have to have a heart of stone to begrudge them these opportunities, because as far as I can see, the kids are just trying to make the most of the experience.

But this is where the Dream School starts (or continues) to seriously diverge from Real World Schools. In the real world, we set them up as best we can, we arrange work experience as much as we can, and we give them careers advice. It’s not quite the same as getting an internship in the Biosphere in Arizona, or doing work experience at the office of Cherie Blair. Of course, with these kinds of opportunity portals, some of these kids will do extremely well, and good luck to them, I say. But it mustn’t be held up as some kind of victory for the way the Dream School operated- the same effect could have been achieved by starting a social mobility program for Free School Meal kids, and just giving them the internships directly without faffing around with a school.

Speaking of this week’s teachers, I have to mention Daley Thompson. Who wouldnt like this guy as their PE teacher? Like Rolf Harris, the man is solid gold, and it was a pleasure watching him teach kids not to drown (despite their own best attempts to do so). Harlem as back (on her fifteenth last chance from D’Abbs, no doubt), and it was heartening to see that being under water actually did stop her talking. Jamal, last seen proudly bearing a jar of his own peg-paste into the science lesson, provided another decent quote: ‘I can’t swim, but I can’t drown, ‘ he beamed, as every rule of logic just went up in smoke. Henry, inspired by the science lessons, put his theory to the test. Funnily enough, the normally jovial Jamal forgot the second clause of his statement at that point. But as Daley said, ‘Small victories are important. Jamal realised that ‘I can’t swim therefore I can’t drown’ isn’t a deductive syllogism, and we all realised that teachers probably shouldn’t hug teenage girls in swimming costumes, even if it had escaped Thompson for a moment.

‘Every human has the right to invade countries.’

And Cherie Blair finally ascended from her underground lair where she bathes in the tears of orphans and broken men. The kids, at the least, knew who she was (which is unusual for the Dream School, where the level of assumed fame is marred by the fact that many of these kids are only vaguely aware of anything that isn’t Grand Theft Auto and Youtube). They went for her accent, and wanted to know why she ditched it, and it was a joy to listen to her explain to them that, y’know, it just happens when you hang out with the wealthy. I enjoyed her opinion that she wasnt Upper Class, a theory presumably based on the fact that she wasn’t born into the recognised aristocracy, and not on the fact that her husband used to run Britain and she herself is extremely wealthy. Still, there are all kinds of class definitions, why worry?

And despite my obvious displeasure, I have to concede that she provided one of the few informed pieces of actual pedagogy in the whole episode, when she said, ‘It’s not easy to teach, that’s why it’s a profession.’ She’s not daft, that one, her instincts obviously honed by a life-time in proximity to politics. I couldn’t agree more: it is a bloody job, and that’s still the basic error of this program’s premise- that you can just start from scratch and work it out as you go along. Teachers have been around since the dawn of dawns, and I could point out that as a profession we’ve encountered every one of these dilemmas before. The assumption is that, somehow, teaching and schools are to blame for these children’s situation, as if we’ve let them down in some way. Well, no one’s perfect, but you don’t call a doctor crap because not every one of his patients gets better.

For most of these kids, it isn’t school that was their problem; it was them. Oh, they might have difficult circumstances, and some of them genuinely were prevented from receiving an education by a number of reasons, but as the weeks go by this series reinforces the premise that most of these kids have let themselves down. ‘I couldn’t get on with the teacher,’ ‘I hated all the rules,’ and ‘I wasn’t interested,’ arent reasonable excuses for dropping out of school. The fact that they couldn’t grasp that, and that they failed to walk through the open doors offered to them, is no one’s fault but their own.

I’m really glad to see some of these kids have their eyes opened by the possibilities that life offers them (watching Ronnie dissolve into star struck awe by the legend that is Rolf Harris was genuinely touching), and I hope that every single one of them gets a leg up to better things as a result. But we do our kids no favours whatsoever by pretending that laziness, surliness and apathy are anyone else’s responsibility but theirs. Life will not be kind to these people; why should it? There are no karmic arbitrators, meting out kindness to those who need.

The world is a tabula rasa. The only question is, what kind of mark do you want to make?

‘He told me I had what it takes.’

Moment of the week: watching Simon Callow getting all peculiar over the handsome Henry and his ‘acting ability.’ Welcome to showbiz, kid.
Second moment of the week: watching Chloe being told that she would be observing an oesophageal dilatation, followed by a laparoscopy, followed by a gastrectomy. Then nodding, like it was anything other than fourth century Sanskrit.