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*copyright A A Gill
When Hercules died, Zeus granted him immortality by transforming him into a constellation. I felt similarly blessed this weekend as I attended the Mount Olympus that is the Wellington College Festival of Education, the old-money Zion of matters secondary-academic. In its second year, I was frankly delighted to find myself invited to pontificate. Teacher shall speak unto teacher, in agreeable, well-appointed rooms.
|A depressing example of inner city decay.|
|d’Abbro: before Dream school.|
The first gig had me so outside of my comfort zone, if I looked behind me I could see Voyager 1 in the distance, puffing away after me as it left our solar system and entered interstellar space.
The next session was my very own, and I had ten minutes to dash there. There was a lovely man who wanted to talk about education, right up to the point I closed the door on my toilet cubicle; it was really odd- as if he wasn’t sure where we were, and I wasn’t in the position to nod and engage. So I engaged.
|Birbalsingh: ‘Not Satan.’|
|VIP section in the master’s Lodge.|
And I met Katherine Birbalsingh. Nicely enough, John d’Abbro introduced us after the panel, and I have to say that, despite her portrayal in the left-leaning press (normally so considered, unpartisan and reflective), she is apparently devoid of hoof and horn. She was, in fact, a confident, charming and gracious woman who genuinely believes that education is vital. And as I talked with both of them, a truism floated into view: that, despite the blog-fog, and the smoke and heat generated by the media, most people in education share an enormous amount of common ground. If you put any of us into a classroom, I bet most of us would move in ways similar enough to each other to identify us of the same taxonomic group: teacherus professionalis. There are differences in method and means, but the impulse is the same- the education, the welfare of children. That is the axiom that unites us all. As long as you possess that, then you are part of a community that should spend more time standing up for itself, and less time throwing stones at each other in pointlessness and pettiness. I have a few reservations about the Free School movement, but those reservations aren’t enough to make me wish her anything but the greatest of success in her project. She struck me as possessed of laser-like focus and self belief. Small empires have been formed with less.
‘This is the stewardess speaking: does anyone know how to fly a plane?’
Oh boy, oh boy, oh BOY, am I happy- and for all the wrong reasons. I was going to write about so many things today, but now, now there’s only one game in town, and it is righteous: the news that Jamie’s Dream School, my all time favourite piece of pedagogic TV, is back in the news- and for all the wrong reasons. It’s like Christmas for edusphere bloggers like myself, and this time they’ve served up a turkey so large you could saddle it and ride it through Admiralty Arch.
The House of Commons Education Select Committee ‘regularly meets with representatives from across the education sector, including students, parents, teachers, social workers, inspectors and academics’, or so its website says. And who, in its infinite wisdom has it decided to consult on the realities of mainstream education, and the challenges facing pupils, teachers and educators? Why, the Dons and Alumni of TV’s Dream School of Course! Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I am absolutely hugging myself with joy, and not simply because it gives me a chance to return to my favourite fictional subject since Mad Men series V got put on ice.
This is almost as good as when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you imagine the thinking that inspired this glorious piece of consultation? Education is famously in a permanent state of contention; manhandled and pawed at by every successive administration until it feels soiled and unchaste as a penny-dreadful heroine-in-distress; its aims and successes are never settled. It remains permanently open to speculation and endless adjustment. I’ve written before about the enormous intellectual and professional cavity that exists in education; that because hard science fails to rigorously establish the efficacy of one system over another, and because education itself is subject to redefinition so easily, that any number of oleaginous hoover-salesmen can bound down from the mountain top and claim the magic beans they have in their pocket are actually a beanstalk to academic success. There aren’t enough frying pans for the violence I would do to this clan.
But I had no idea that the cavity was so cavernous that you could reasonably assemble the cast of Gandhi inside it. Has the chair forgotten that Jamie’s Dream School, fabulous in so many ways as it was, was a school of twenty? That they were all post school age (i.e. adults, not school children any more)? That none of the teachers were qualified to teach? So: no students and no teachers. This is a school?
That the Head Master inexplicably had no powers of sanction other than, you know, sad eyes and the ‘I’m worried that we’re failing you,’ talk? That its sponsor was the fantastic but essentially, ‘nothing to do with education’ Jamie Oliver? That the curriculum was a Bizarro World impersonation of what they would study? That they were free to come and go as they pleased? That all the collective expertise of the ‘teachers’- which, focused on a single spot could have bored a hole through the Earth’s Crust- was essentially as useful as an ashtray on a hang glider?
This wasn’t a school. This was a circus of optimism, ambition and benevolence. Who will they ask next? Mr Chips? The cast of Waterloo Road? F*ck me, don’t give them any ideas.
|The cast of TOWEI: not invited to the committee. Yet.|
Of course, this isn’t to say that the people involved have nothing credible to say- Bad Boy D’Abbs is the respected Head of the New Rush Hall group- he’s got as valid an opinion as many, and more than some; Alvin Hall, David Starkey and Lord Winston and Mary Beard are no idiots (the mass of their combined education threatens to create a wormhole in Time and Space). And Lord Jazzy of B seems like a good and wise man. But in the same way that Jamie’s Dream School (the series) was far more successful as a mirror from which educational matters could be usefully teased and discussed (*gives a small girlish cough and winks*), the lessons to be learned from the school itself as an institution could be gleaned from one day in any mainstream comprehensive. The challenges that that Andrew Motion and Simon Callow faced in their lesson laboratories are the same ones that every teacher in the UK (and I imagine beyond) face on a daily basis. If you call a building, twenty kids and a dozen or so untrained teachers in the same place with TV cameras a ‘brave experiment in education’, then I suppose it was.
But it wasn’t, it just wasn’t. It was a well meant attempt to solve the challenges of education that teachers have faced for thousands of years: how do you switch the kids on (answer: reboot switch under the scalp, like Westworld)? How do you maintain order (clue: create it) and so on. Plato, Avicenna, even Maria bleedin’ Montessori, have all had a pop at these questions before. The idea that ambition and warmth and subject expertise were the sole requirements for starting a school was touching, but wrong. It presumes that anyone can have a crack at it. How hard can it be? The school was based on the premise that teaching doesn’t require professional teachers- an axiom that, apparently the Education Select Committee shares.
And of course, it will surprise no one to hear that the first forty five minutes of the hearing will see selected students from the Dream school giving evidence to the Committee. Joy unlimited! That alone is worth my license fee for 2011, and on Tuesday the 21st of June, there’s only one thing my BT box will be set to- the Big Ticket Box Office of the Dream School Kids from Fame. I rejoice, and the world of teaching rejoices. Please, God, let Harlem return to the spotlight; if the BBC has any sense, they’ll revoke their clause prohibiting commercial broadcasting and turn it into a pay-per-view. I have my credit card ready.
‘Amongst the issues the Committee will explore are behaviour and discipline (a recurring theme in the series), curriculum and qualifications (including the importance of creative and practical learning), and teacher training and autonomy (in light of the Government’s Free Schools and Academies programmes).’
|”Jamie’s Dream Hospital, hmmm…”|
And what, I wonder, will be the input from our celebrity panel? Alvin Hall achieved some success by linking maths to their self interest; Mary Beard managed to get them feeling a bit sorry for her; Winston surprised them with Trumpian resources; Starkey took on Connor in what I thought was going to be the world’s weirdest rap battle. They all had some some success, a lot of failure, and all looked like they’d aged a decade through the experience. Hall successfully summed the pupils up as mostly childish and anti-entrepreneurial- full of desire but little ambition or strategy. They should invite Jamie’s Dinner Lady, who memorably chided him, saying, ‘You’ve created a beautiful world here for them, but it doesn’t exist.’ Here is wisdom.
The students’ input should be interesting. But then, student voice is terribly fashionable, isn’t it? Yes, that’s what education has been missing for centuries- the opinions of children. These students were given gratis education for well over a decade, and many of them blew it for all the usual reasons- misbehaviour, boredom and egotism. I despair when I see the flower of our youth offered the wisdom of centuries for free, and turn their noses up at it. It’s sad, and as teachers we work as hard as we can to see that it happens as rarely as possible. But there comes a point when people have to be held responsible for their own educations, when we can no longer say, ‘We’ve let them down’. There comes a point when we all- all of us- have to say, ‘I let myself down. No one else.’ The danger is, of course, that these students will be unable to realise that, for precisely the same reason that they gave school the bum’s rush in the first place- they can’t see how valuable it can be, and they can’t see that the world won’t bend over backwards to kiss their arses. Why should it?
One of Jamie’s themes was that if only the more creative subjects were encouraged, then many children would engage with school in a personal way. And there is truth in this- the thing is, though, that schools already do offer these subjects. As I mentioned in a recent post reply, the last time I checked, we had Music, Art, Design, Textiles, Expressive Arts, English, and that doesn’t even begin to include the enormous levels of creativity and artistry hard wired into the Humanities subjects like RS and Sociology, where interpretation and interaction with the content is vital to success. So where is this enormous deficit in creative and practical learning? It doesn’t exist. Some kids blow these subjects off too, just as surely as they flip the bird to Trigonometry and Boyle’s Law.
The main reason why some kids don’t succeed in school is because they choose not to work and learn. They choose, not life, but something else. They choose to do as they please. Teachers and parents need to help them learn the character assets of self restraint and dedication, but there is only so far that a teacher can make this happen, even a great one. The earlier they learn this the better. If they don’t learn it at an early age, then the gap between their possible learning and their actual learning gets wider and wider, until by the time we get them in secondary, some of them have been habituated into patterns of self-interest and whimsy, seemingly unable to grasp that the world exists as anything other than a nuisance, or as a conduit to their gratification. Kids of two see the world as an enormous solipsistic playground. By the time they hit GCSEs, you’re kind of hoping they’ve grown out of that. Some don’t.
But there may be Solomonic gems from them yet. I often meet kids on the street (because that’s how I roll) who have left school and confess that they mucked about too much, and wish they had done otherwise. It gives me no pleasure to hear this- I’d rather they applied themselves at the time it was most efficient- but at least they have grown that much, and perhaps they can take that lesson into the next phase of their lives. God knows, enough people mature at different rates and find their paths in their twenties or later. Life isn’t over until the flowers hit the lid.
Jamie’s Dream School. Episode 8. Tuesday 21st June, 10:00am. The Parliament Channel. My blog: possibly that night, depending on whether I can calm down enough.
Sympathy for the Devil
Poor old AC Grayling. While it might seem difficult to feel sorrow for the world famous, internationally renowned philosopher (poor him), the poor old pedgogue has been getting such a kicking this week that laboratory Beagles chipped in and sent him a card. His crime appears to be- and I am taking this on advice- that he had the temerity to say that he, and a Brains Trust of Olympian Alpha Eggheads have decided to set up the New Humanities College, in association with the University of London, issuing degrees.
|‘Hitchens, you rotter! This was YOUR idea!’|
To be honest, I’m vaguely at a loss as to see what’s actually so criminally wrong. I even read Terry Eagleton’s sermon and everything. I scanned Twitter (rapidly becoming my go-to source of veracity, even more than Wikipedia and tea leaves). Were I to encourage my neighbour’s elderly Labrador to take a poop in an empty cereal box, garnish it with Dolly Mixture, and advertise it on eBay for a fiver, whose business is it other than mine (and presumably, my by-now uncomfortable neighbour)? Is he hanging around the gates of the local primary school, dangling packets of black heroine? Has he recommended, as one immaculate Kuwaiti political candidate did this week, that conquered foreign nationals be legitimately used as sex slaves? Did he vote for Jean Martyn in the BGT finals?
No, he didn’t. He’s created a University (I believe that the very posh ones get called colleges again, in the same way that surgeons drop the doctor and chest-bump to Mr again)- well a virtual one at least. And the big fuss, it seems is that he’s charging a kidney and a mortgage for it. So what? Who’s business is that? If someone wants to do it, it’s no worse or better than the numerous ‘English Language’ colleges that used to dot the Bayswater road. I believe that setting up commercial training institutions is now common practise. Where’s the harm if Gray-lo wants to bum a pension from the parents of wealthy Brainiacs? Who does it hurt? If it does well, congratulations. If it goes nipples-up, then chalk one up to bad management. Never trust a philosopher with money- they’ll only remind you that value is an abstract, relative concept with no intrinsic substance. Then they’ll beg a fag off you because they’re skint.
Have I missed something? Eagleton apears to be hopping up and down and I can’t quite see why- every one of is arguments is boiling with insubstantiality.
‘If a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges like this one gains ground in Britain, the result will be to relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status.’
If the streets were made of trifle, we’d all be wearing wellies. If we all saved up, we could buy the world a coke. If, if, if. Let the rich send their children to Welsh mines, Gretna Green or wherever they want. How on earth does it concern anyone else how they choose to educate their- adult-, remember- children? The state can provide for the VAST majority who can’t afford the Mega-fees of the NCH and its ilk.
Rich people are taxed, I believe. Those taxes help pay for state Universities, schools, and everything else. The rest of their money is theirs to do with as their delicate fancy possesses them. A C Grayling has slogged away in the Logic Mines all his life. Academia is an occupation rich in A-Team magnificence, light in remuneration. Who is to stand between this man and his high end Evening School? How will it even knock a pebble from the edifice of state tertiary education?
Trying to explain himself at the recent talk in Foyles, he was greeted with smoke bombs, preventing him from speaking. Who on Earth do these people think they are defending? Take your smoke bombs, and your righteous, infantile fury and let them detonate in every fee paying educational institution in every high street in every borough, from home tutor centres to adult education classes. Take your placards and your fury to every private school and independent boarder in the country. And ask yourself, Who are we fighting for? It’s enough to make poor ACG think the barbarians are back.
And it’s Two weeks until the Sunday Times Festival Of Education, where both D’Abbs and ACG will be speaking. If anyone gets a smoke bomb out they’ll feel the toe of my shoe.
I’ll be speaking at the Sunday Times Festival of Education on Sunday the 26th of June at 2:45- the topic will be the behaviour crisis in schools, how we got here and where we go from here. It’s being held in Wellington College, which appears, from their website, to be based in Berkshire’s answer to the Palace of Versailles. Other speakers include Niall Ferguson, Robert Winston, Bad Boy D’Abbs, David Starkey, Dominic Lawson, Katherine Birbalsingh, A C Grayling, A A Gill, Toby Young, and many other worthies. I can only presume that I’m the warm-up act or something, or that there’s another Tom Bennett they’ve confused me with.
It also hasn’t escaped my notice that there are a few alumni from Jamie’s Dream School on the guest list, so the opportunity to see some of my favourite fictional characters in the flesh is almost more than I can bear.
Still, very excited about the opportunity to do this. The only problem is; where do I park my helicopter?
Click on this link to take you to the homepage for the festival. And a picture of me that makes Brian Haw look like Gok Wan.
|‘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.
|‘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.
|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.
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.