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|‘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 wouldn‘t 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 wasn‘t 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,’ aren‘t 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.