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The S-Bomb: Starkey didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition

 Now I don’t want to stand in between David Starkey and the juggernaut of disapprobation that is ploughing through his Christmas card list- I am neither Toby Young nor a moron- but the recent debate surrounding his somewhat incontinent comments regarding race, poverty and class seems to have been marred by a mighty wind of righteousness. And no matter what side the argument falls on, whenever I hear someone being torn apart by Twitter, I automatically find myself wondering if the momentum carrying the tide of opinion is washing all debate and reason with it.
What is it with media-friendly historians and race, anyway? First David Irving describes Hitler as the ‘Greatest unifying force in Europe since Charlemagne’, and now Starkey has fallen into the spiked pit of telly. Niall Ferguson better watch his back, that’s all I’m saying. You never hear Tristam Hunt talking like this.

Teaching Philosophy, I’m used to provoking and maintaining discussions that are designed to toe-punt as many sacred cows as possible, normally in the name of clarity and rigour. Half the time we’re spent gazing into our navels and asking if there actually are such things as navels, and do we know what we mean by the term anyway? As my old PE teacher would say, ‘Get a f*cking job.’ But it’s all to good purpose- our daily mental lives contain so many contradictions and holy uncertainties that it’s bracing to watch as trusted, nurtured prejudices and axioms perish with the merest philosophy.

Dreaming of marmalade. The BASTARD.
I also teach Religious Studies- easy soldier, I’m agnostic- and one thing we certainly discuss in abundance is the Comment Is Free trinity of nationality, ethnicity and faith. And it only takes the shortest of nails to scratch away any illusion that there is anything like a consensus of opinion over such matters. There are, of course, broad brush-strokes of agreement (I say of course; without them, society is impossible), but these are accompanied by concomitant subtleties of position that have taught me that the varieties of opinion and values held by the human mind are infinite in combination and degree.

When we discuss such topics, at first there is often a tacit agreement to avoid controversy- the teenage ostrich seeks agreement and unity. But this guardedness shatters due to another teenage tendency- spontaneity. As soon as an even vaguely controversial perspective is voiced, the space between thought and verbal response in some students can be measured in nanoseconds: and debate is begun.
Whenever someone makes a comment that’s a bit ‘my mate Chalky’ or ‘Are there any people here from Bradford tonight?’ I don’t leap on them, or try to clobber them with the shillelagh of shame; far better to steer the comments into a conversation, a kind of Socratic dialogue with either the rest of the class, or myself, if that doesn’t work. I have found that it is far easier to persuade people to adopt a moral position than to tell them to do so. Simply shutting down the debate doesn’t do anything other than encourage them to dig their heels in and defend their position with greater vigour, however unpopular it may be.
The six squeezes of Henry VIII. Gs up, hoes down.
Here is a universal truth about our opinions: the things we believe become us. We take a position, find it pleases us, and then, subconsciously or otherwise, say, ‘This is me; this position is who I am.’ It is a perfectly natural way of defining ourselves. Most of us, even the chattering classes, do our thinking on a subject once; then we position our opinions in a way that is most comfortable to us, a way that coheres most readily with the interconnecting web of existing beliefs. It is rare that we readily adopt a view that radically contradicts our existing paradigm.
This isn’t to say that our beliefs and values all cohere beautifully- did I mention we were human beings?- but that we filter the world to fit into a rough pattern that suits us. Kant would have described it as categorising noumena (unprocessed reality) into phenomena (our experience of that reality). This process is largely unconscious.
The problem is that we then become sympathetic to that truth; we become attached to it; we decide that it is part of who we are, and any attack on that view is an attack on ourselves.
And this is the chief danger in debate: the participants become antagonists; become opponents. The ideas and the ideologue become one, and soon face becomes as important as loving truth. This is the adversarial consequence of the debating chamber; it is the vice of the rhetorician, the sophist and the politician. 
David Starkey is a sinner in many senses, to be sure, but one thing he is not is stupid. Another thing he is not, is the universal arbitrar of truth, or a Renaissance man. Perhaps as a historian he is tempted to describe people in terms of class movements and great racial waves more than others. His comments were, in my opinion, medieval and broad. 
But the enormous hail of villification that poured on him recently was also unjust- the true test of a man’s status as a racist or otherwise must surely be in how he engages with others. And until that has been proven, the chattering classes should be more sensitive themselves to damning a man, however much he may have stumbled in expressing himself. I’ve witnessed too many witch hunts in the classroom to feel much sympathy for the slightly hypocritical gathering of skirts that followed his outburst. By their denunciations, they proclaim, ‘Oh no, not I! I would never make broad sweeping statements about anything!’ 
And of course, we all do. Starkey’s shame was that he spoke so publicly, so unwisely. But good quality debate is not generated by making Satans of anyone who trips the mousetrap of intolerance. We discuss; we debate; we consider and we meditate. Saying that I, too, have seen Goody Starkey dance around the camp fire with Lucifer does nothing but throw chaff in the face of real discussion, and makes real progress understanding differences between communities even harder. This isn’t a game show. No one wins by being last to be wrong.

The Sun on Sunday Festival of education: Birbalsingh goes old school, AA Gill, and Starkey’s undercarriage.

Manners we can believe in.
Are we still allowed to say Sunday Times? I’m worried in case Hugh Grant bursts in through my stained-glass parlour wall and reads me the well-mannered riot act. Even though the festival was almost two weeks gone, I thought I’d write down some final thoughts, and I promise I’ll be brief. And in a world where the star of 2009’s barrel-scraper ‘Did you hear about the Morgans?’ is apparently anointed as the Messiah of integrity and probity, I suspect no one will notice anyway. God is dead: we killed him. Now, anything is possible. Next year, it’ll probably be called the ‘The Sun On Sunday Festival of Education and Tits.’ Anthony Seldon better change his voice-mail pin. Or break out his mankini.
Day two was hot: I know this because I took my jacket off, and normally I refuse to acknowledge the Sun even exists, because I’m British, and when (billions of years from now) Old Father Sol starts to  turn into an enormous Red Giant that slowly engulfs the entire Solar System, just before Earth is vaporised into quantum pieces, I might- might– take my second pair of socks off.
Cricket was being played on an immaculate lawn in a way that doesn’t happen in my school, i.e. at all. And there was a fire juggler warming up (yeah, I said it) in a way that really, really doesn’t happen in my school, unless you count the time years ago that someone thought that a can of Lynx would make a dandy flamethrower, which it did incidentally. 
Birbal Sings
Birbalsingh, apparently.
If you follow the popular press (guilty) or the educational blogosphere (send him down) then K-Singh can hardly have escaped your notice. And you could be excused for thinking that, beneath her mighty curly thatch the number 666 could be found tattooed. Great Krypton, but she gets a mauling, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that I agree with the entirety of her analyses (I don’t) or that I think she’s the spearhead of anything transformational, but the majority of things she claims about the descriptive reality of teaching in many inner-city environments is as controversial as custard. But every time I see her in the forum of public opinion, she’s being crucified. Is it because she represented at the Tory conference? Possibly; endorsing the nasty party has never been a PR gold mine, as Kenny Everett, Floella Benjamin and Peter Stringfellow can testify. Is it because she criticised mainstream state education? Possibly; there’s a worrying trend in contemporary debate to see any criticism of state schooling as an enormous land war on the entire abstract concept of state schooling. Which is like pointing out that someone’s got spinach on their teeth, and being arrested for genocide. It’s also probably because she writes for the Telegraph, which is normally enough evidence to damn someone. But these days? I don’t know, the Telegraph is smelling pretty flowery compared to its Wapping/ Hades cousins. Wait ‘til Hugh Grant gets medieval on their asses.
Her speech was called ‘Tradition is the Best innovation,’ and she had a pretty good turn out; cameras, photographers and all. What she said- which was essentially an extended prospectus for her new school- was pretty uncontroversial. If I had been expecting her to announce that all children would be hung upside down and bled to feed the basement gardens of despair, or that Moloch of the thousand talons was Head of PAL, I was disappointed. Absolutely NO promises whatsoever to sacrifice the Jannie every year at Summer Solstice to appease the Old Ones and raise CVA scores to exceed FFT targets, like Edward Woodward in the Wicker Man. Nothing like that. It was all boundaries, discipline, community outreach, uniform and that. Her idea is that state schools benefit from traditional curricula and behaviour standards, which is absolute tosh, because as we all know they learn best when they act as full stakeholders in their own education, partners in learning with the teachers, who are themselves lifelong learners, devising their own syllabi and learning rules for themselves.
I might have made the last bit up. Because it’s moronic. 
Actually, it was all very reasonable, and she seems very reasonable, and I’m still a little baffled as to where the shit storm blew in for her. I think she’s the fulcrum of a number of factors (mentioned above) that draws attention to her like the gravity well of a wormhole. I mean, I’ve read her column, and I don’t always agree, but who cares? Where does this anger come from? I even read a horrible hatchet job on her in the Grauniad by a ‘former friend’ which even Rupert Murdoch would have pulled, saying, ‘Ooh, that’s a bit near the knuckle.’ Still, I guess that’s what one contends with when heads are pushed over the parapet. 
I’ve mentioned ‘those’ sort of questions that people sometimes bring to the Q&A at the end; where people stand up and apparently recite their life stories in the form of an epic poem, and the panellist has to use an Enigma machine to decipher the question. This one was half way through Beowulf and into Paradise Lost. Birbalsingh’s eyebrows practically knitted a scarf as she waited patiently for the punchline; it was like, ‘Blah blah, at my school we grow turnips, blah blah the state of education in Denmark blah blah 22% increase of deprivation index blah blah….’ and so on until the end of time and all that was left was this woman talking and nothing else existed except for this bloody monologue. Birbalsingh response was surprising: putting her feet up on the table, leaning back and saying, ‘What’s got two thumbs and doesn’t give a shit?’ *points thumbs at herself* ‘Me!’
She didn’t really.
‘Ha ha ha ha- your tears mean nothing!’
Restaurant critic famous for being rude ‘is rude’ to someone shocker
Scrambled to the next gig: AA Gill, which was a big draw for me, as I like the man’s writing- restaurant reviews, TV reviews; good God, the man must have Rupert Murdoch’s penile corona on a chain. Gill is by now the stuff of cannibalistic, media navel-gazing legend: the bromance with Clarkson, the cuffing from Ramsey, the fact that he can apparently bear Michael Winner, and so on. He wrote one of the best food review lines I can remember, and frankly that’s rare.*
But he wasn’t there to talk about all that- this was an education festival. He was there to talk about Dyslexia, of which club he is apparently a member. No, I didn’t know that either, and of course the irony of one of Britain’s most celebrated wordsmiths emerging from what most schools would probably call the Literacy Nurture group, escapes no one, least of all Gill, who dictates all his work. (As Bernard Manning once said, ‘Can I use your Dictaphone?’)
We were in the Driver Lecture Theatre, which looked like a set from a Bronte period drama, and it filled up fast. There was a pause as the previous session over ran, and when the tardy first speaker left he brayed at us, ‘Was I running late?! Why weren’t you all at my session?!!!’ Satisfyingly, no one laughed. Gill arrived, escorted to the premises by the sort of strapping sixth form girl that the Daily Mail puts on the front page on exam results day; a minute before I had seen him accosted by a geyser of a woman, and all I could hear was the phrase, ‘You’ve no idea how much you’ve made my day by meeting you…’ before I passed on by. 
Reminded me of a story I heard about Dean Martin: a lifelong fan sees him in a bar, and goes over, gushing about how fantastic he is, and how thrilled he is to meet him. After a few minutes of fawning, the fan adds, ‘I have so much respect for you,’ to which Martin relied, ‘Buddy, save a little for yourself.’
It was odd to see him: he looks exactly like his by-line, sort of tanned and imperishable, as if he and Cliff Richard made a deal one day with Old Splitfoot (only Cliff stopped feeding the meter). He also exuded the calm, commanding ease of a man who knows he writes a fabulously well paid and well-read series of columns, the bastard. And he was wearing exactly the same linen suit as me, although I suspected that there was a margin of several zeros separating my tailor (the famous Jewish designer ‘Emandess’) from his (something unspeakably unique and unpronounceable, I imagine). I was right at the front, and whenever he stopped to think, or for effect, he invariably stared at the spot on the floor where my frayed hem dragged. I’d like to think he was using it as a mandala.
But he was very, very good- polished, and funny of course. He was the first person at the festival I heard drop the F-bomb, although I gather that Geldof would be along later to rectify that deficit. And of course, the first person to swear always gets a laugh. But he was good: honest, most of all- about his traumatic experience of well-meaning but useless education; honest about the limits of his own expertise in the field ‘I’m not here,’ he said right at the start, ‘As an expert in dyslexia. I don’t have the answers for you,’ he said candidly, and for once I thought, thank God, a non-educationalist who doesn’t think he’s got the magic bullet for us all. Thank God.
He talked about how school was great fun- ‘I got laid and smoked drugs,’ he reassured us- but that it was mostly useless for him academically. About how his working life subsequent to school was a patchwork of jobs and incongruity, until he stumbled into the Sunday Times. If people were looking for stories of hope and inspiration, they were barking up the wrong tree; if they had come to find out what education should do to cater for dyslexic children, the cupboard was similarly bare. Like I say, it was refreshing; he didn’t claim to be a guru, or a swami of kids that don’t read real good, like Derek Zoolander. No, he was just here to tell us all how his education was a bit rubbish, make a few wry comments about it, and flash his immaculate, slightly terrifying gnashers at everyone.
And he certainly wasn’t there to provide moral succour for anyone. One Yummy Mummy put her hand up during the Q&A and introduced herself as ‘His biggest fan,’ or something similar, and I could feel Cathy Bates floating around the room. She had a large book stuffed with writing and loose leaves of paper which even at my angle and distance I could tell was some kind of journal. She then proceeded with another one of those questions. Now I should point out that Gill had spent a good five minutes deboning and gutting what he described as ‘those bloody parents he meets all the time’ who in his opinion, did more harm than good for the dyslexic child by making them feel like they were causing all the problems in the family by being different (or special needs, as I believe Satan describes it). And she seemed, it must be said, like an avatar of that species.
She went on nervously for a minute; but Gill wasn’t Birbalsingh, and frankly wasn’t in the mood for it. He probably had a yacht to christen or something later on. ‘Do you understand the difference between a statement and a question?’ he asked sweetly, and the woman looked as if she’d been punched in the ovary. ‘Er, yes,’ she went on, before resuming her monologue about how her son was just like that, and he really understood, and so on. It was sad, because I could feel her yearning to do the right thing, to help her son, whoever he was, and to be the best mother. She didn’t want to be the smother mother, and she adored- and let me make this clear, she adored Gill. Perhaps she saw in him the future success that she hoped her son would be, winning, despite insurmountable odds. Well, whatever she thought, Gill wasn’t playing to her script.
‘You don’t understand the difference, do you?’ he said, or words similar. It got a laugh, because it was funny, and with a straight woman slightly more sturdy it would have passed with ease. But she wasn’t sturdy; she was a bundle of expectation, star-struck, excitement and need, and she fumbled with her notes, as if the question was there, and then she said, ‘I used to really like you,’ in a small voice. ‘Oh, I’ve lost what I…what I was going to say.’ 
And then she started to cry.
Nobody knew where to look. Well, Gill bloody well did: somewhere else. ‘Oh dear,’ he said, ‘That was rude, I didn’t mean it like that,’ he smoothed, before taking the next question as the poor woman put herself back together. It would have taken the heart of a restaurant critic not to feel a little sorry for her, but my sympathy is tempered by pragmatism: here is a man renowned for acerbic, caustic, sardonic, laconic, often misanthropic honesty and sarcasm. He is not, as far as I can see, a poster child for the WWF, or a member of the Care Bears. He is a funny, and honest, and clever and sarcastic and sometimes a bit mean, and that it the creature he is. To expect him to be the celebrity role model that inhabits your expectations is to have an unrealistic relationship with people simply because you read their writing and think that you know them, or worse, they know you, in that way that teenagers often dream that were they meet their celebrity crushes, they would be really great friends in real life.
I saw him in the Master’s Lodge just afterwards; so I thanked him for a great session and then buggered swiftly off before he commented on my cheap suit or something. I like to think that if we knew each other in real life, we’d be great friends.
The Horror, the horror
‘Does this library make my junk look big?’
Finally, it was lunch and then off to another of the Big Beasts of the day: David Starkey, who was late, as befits his position of Grand Matriarch of Ye Olden Times,  and who has a vocal delivery as if everything he says is the coda to some devastating comeback. We sweated and waited in the Marquis, despite its extensive vents and gussets. On he hobbled, apologetic and infirm, having just had an operation to amend one of his club feet; as a result, he had to remain seated throughout his speech, and his injured foot was supported high by a small foot stool, a position which regrettably opened the span of his legs rather indecently into what resembled a collection of boiled shallots gathered in a small linen pouch. In spotlight. Oh, the humanity. 
It was an ignoble way to display one of our national treasure’s national treasures, and if the Sun does sponsor the Festival next year, I hope they’ve got a tent for budgie-smuggling academics along with the thinking man’s crumpet sessions. Phew, wotta scorcher!
His content was familiar, if you’ve heard him speak on the subject before, but always, always eminently listenable. As someone who makes a living speaking in public, to rather less slavish audiences, I have enormous respect for people who can talk lucidly and methodically on a topic for forty five minutes without making it insufferably narcissistic or simply dull. Starkey’s tour of the history of education, intermingled with his own personal history was fascinating. Before the session, I was deeply suspicious of anyone who pontificates about education without having had any experience other than their own in schools; mainly because it means that people end up talking rot about matters they have no expertise in (see: every minister since Pitt the elder, most educational consultants, Tony Blair), but for once with D-Stark I conceded that, from the point of view of class, history and the development of state education, he knew his onions (which were in  plain view, as I mentioned, winking evilly at everyone. In the hot clammy tent, I felt a cold chill).
But his analysis rang a resonant chord with me- coming from a relatively poor working class background as he did (we were regularly reminded) he defined the difference between the aspirant working class, and the lumpen proletariat- the deserving poor, one might say, versus the Chav. I liked how he tackled topics (and terminology) like that head on, with fearless academic rigour, unashamed to explore differences in need and desire among the working class communities. He is often depicted as a slavish lap dog to middle class values, entranced by the legends and myths of nobility; I would say that his vision for social mobility was more realistic than most: pupils from areas of unemployment and poverty need rigour, boundaries, and structure in their lives, to enable them to achieve the opportunities that otherwise appear invisible to them in society, and that if we want all children to have a fair chance at success, then we need to realise that some children need more boundaries than others, because sometimes they’re not getting them at home. 
After the speech he was whisked away in a car, presumably to some fabulous Tudor feast where swans were served in apple-butter, garnished with the eyelashes of virgin Harts and skewered on the horn of a unicorn, I’d like to think, but not before he was interviewed for the Sunday Times Film crew (who, I’d like to point out, appeared to have got lost on the way to my session. Just thought I’d mention that). They put to him the following question; ‘How would you improve education?’
And he, without missing a heartbeat, answered, ‘Get rid of all the faculties of education in every University.’ Say what you mean David, don’t hold back. His reasoning was that the proliferation of progressive thinking so popular in the early 20th century, had resulted in the creation of a kind of dogma, where traditional ideas of behaviour and curriculum had been displaced in favour of spurious, fanciful ideologies that actually destroyed the ability of education to educate.
David, you had me at ‘Get’. 
He’s probably off his dwarven trolley to want to abolish them , but then, he never shied away from going to DefCon 5 with his opinions. 
And after that, that was that. I’d like to say that I stayed for Geldof and Ferguson, but unlike the vast majority of speakers at the festival, I am actually a full time teacher in a full time state school (rather than a famous dilettante or a representative of a multinational conglomerate of educational suppliers), and I have a very real job to do, so I naffed off. It was, I must say a terrific, if exhausting experience. Besides I wasn’t sure what the lead singer of the Boomtown rats was going to be able to tell me about teaching children, so I took a gamble that I could miss it and live. I heard he was a great speaker, but then, the train home to a world of Film4 and lasagne was pretty great too. BBC News phoned to ask me if I could do a slot on the teacher strike when I got home, but I was too shattered to think of heading over to Shepherd’s Bush at nine o’clock so I declined. The great educational media machine ground on without me, and the world was probably a better place for it.
*’The food was terrible. It was the opposite of food. It was doof.’

Day One at The Sunday Times Festival of Education: Glastonbury for Swots*

*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.

I met Old Andrew; I met Birbalsingh, and A A Gill, and Phil Beadle, and a dozen other worthies. I saw David Starkey’s stately undercarriage glower at me with carless abandon; I sat with Peter York as he ignored me and had a scone. I sat on the commode of Anthony Seldon, and held a door open for Andy Burnham.

Reader, I was bricking it.

I can happily walk in front of a thousand kids and talk about Karl Marx or Transubstantiation for an hour without notes. I adore public speaking, even more than your average European tyrant. But as every teacher knows, the transition from that to lecturing your everyday colleagues, is an abyss. More: the transition from home to away, away, away is substantial. The thought of rubbing shoulders with the Educational Premier League was enough to freeze my blood- and it’s pretty cool at the best of times.

I needn’t have worried. The Festival was a peach; it was the peach without the pit. I’m sure that to many of the seasoned performers it was a familiar, possibly even an odious duty, a necessary evil on the book promotion circuit. To me, it was a weekend pass to bloggers educational Elysium. The Sun didn’t just shine, it beamed; it beat; by Sunday it battered. The Masters of the Universe had organised even the climate with art.

They called it a festival: funny sort of festival. My session was called a workshop, and as I told my audience, I don’t trust anything called a workshop that doesn’t involve overalls and spanners. Similarly, I heave whenever someone offers me a forty-five minute lecture, or a book, or a folder, a piece of sugar paper, and call it a tool kit. Stretch a concept far enough and it snaps, or becomes so thin it becomes transparent. When a term contains too much meaning it conversely becomes meaningless. Although I did see someone juggling fire on Sunday outside the theatre, though. Maybe it was one of Grayling’s fans, disappointed by his no-show.

Most of us will grow up in a different continuum to the one that Wellington College occupies. This is earth-2.  And what a world this is: parents drop ten grand every term for their children to become citizens of the city-state that is the College. For that investment, they become members of what is, essentially, Wayne Manor, without the poverty and deprivation. Its master is Anthony Seldon, a man possessed of terrifying composure, confidence and intelligence. He looks like the sort of cove that would take one look at you, say, ‘Oh Dear, how dreadful,’ and walk away. And he’d be right.

The staff were quite spectacularly civil; and I mean civil in a way that makes you want to pinch yourself. I checked in on Friday before it started and the night porter showed me to the visitors’ quarters with the kind of ease, friendliness and charm that only an employee of an uber rich academic establishment can maintain, without a trace of obsequiousness. From that point on I could find not a mote of selfishness, disinterest or indifference; staff leapt to assist in an almost disturbing way. I’ve run a fair few establishments that trade on good service and staff, and I can assure you that this kind of consistency is nearly impossible to achieve, given that it relies on so many variables of a human nature. Mind you, mine were all minimum-wage wallahs, in between the great Antipodean world tour and the next starring role in Casualty as a corpse. Different recruitment pools, I imagine.

Even the security guard who stopped me on Saturday night (returning from a late night curry in Crawthorne- cannot recommend against it enough) stopped his car and asked me in the most civil way, if I needed any help- in that way that really meant ‘What are you doing here?’ but sounded like ‘You seem lost, would you like a bar of Turkish Delight and some hot coffee?’. When I waved my room key at him, he offered to drive me down to the main hall. It was like that.

Not much sleep for me that night; I was too busy going over my tripartite role. In their wisdom I had been given three gigs to perform at, all on the same day. The first had me introducing, and Q&Aing for John d’Abbro, whom, if any of you have read these blogs before will know, is someone I’ve written about so much in the past it feels like he’s a character I made up in a book. Perhaps I did. I could actually answer questions about Dream School for Mastermind. I’m that good. To end up with him in a speaker’s gig was a Killing Joke. The second gig I had was mine all mine: a one hour workshop (you heard me) in Wellington’s famous library. I say famous because Seldon famously decided to reduce it down to the level of an Ipad or something, by getting rid of all those beastly books and focussing on downloadable content. Which just goes to show that the state sector can really lead the independents on these matters: we’ve been getting rid of our libraries for ages. OK, we haven’t actually replaced them with anything, but it’s a start. Finally I was chairing a panel debate between Tony Sewell, Phil Beadle and John Murphy. More of that later.
The Reformation of Citizen d’Abbro.
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.

John d’Abbro, I am delighted to say, is a charming, friendly, articulate and entirely intelligent educator and human being: the polar opposite to the craven homunculus of education that the recent Jamie’s Dream School experience portrayed. Emailing him before the event to establish the structure, I could tell that the d’Abbro of this world- the real world- was not the same man on the box. Jamie’s Dream School stitched him up like a quilt (and by that I don’t mean the avuncular Mr Oliver himself, but the production company that edited savagely in the search for conflict, confrontation and chaos) by mining every day for nuggets of greatest drama; by insisting that there was practically no way to impose sanctions on anyone; by forbidding the exclusion of the most mental of the inmates- Harlem, of course- even when d’Abbs knew it had to happen.

Apparently there was such a demand for conflict and melodrama that they never showed some of the finer moments which proved that, despite appearances, there was probably more order than chaos, even despite the TV insistence on nearly no boundaries (which left almost nothing but escalating increments of reward). There was even an assembly with a minute’s silence for crying out loud. But unless you were to book-end it onto a funeral or something, you’d never get that on telly- no narrative, no drama, you see. Silence; the enemy of broadcasting, which relies on uninterrupted stimulus and forgets that the pauses around words are the things that lend them emphasis and meaning.

It is, of course, absurd to assume that it was anything other than telly- but to present such a Just-So story to the public was a disservice, given that the intention was to raise the debate about schools and schooling. But there is precious little to be gained if you so heavily fictionalise the circumstances you’re presenting for consideration. We always knew it was telly, which places it on a similar level of authenticity as an episode of Scooby Doo, but it was sad to see that even in those depths, a deeper abyss waits of half truth and duplicity. And the fact that the reputation of people like John could be impacted by it made it even more devilish.

I’ve heard him proudly describe his New Rush Hall group he Heads (a school for EBD kids), and the systems he describes shows him not as the woolly pansy that JDS portrayed, girning about how ‘we’ve let them all down’. This is a man who takes all their mobiles of them at the start of the day; who insists on detentions on the same day that rule breaking occurs in order to start the next day with the slate clean; who holds a daily act of collective worship with a prayer. Reality TV: the great oxymoron of the 21st century. Viewer, beware. As long as narrative considerations rule broadcasting, the tension between entertainment and investigation will always be taut. And in education, we don’t need any more fiction, thanks. We already have f*cking Waterloo Road.

He gave a lucid and concise explanation of ‘Who is failing our kids?’ even as he decried the term kids (I’m not bothered by it, and  apparently the kids are alright with it). Before the session I wondered with him how many people might want to talk about Dream School- I think he was hoping for ‘not a lot. And who can blame him? When you’ve been digging the chalk face for decades, working small miracles with kids for as long, and rolling up your sleeves to get troubled kids (‘troubled’ is my new favourite term) pointing the same way as the rest of society, it must rankle that people see you as ‘the Dream School guy’. Still, fame is a fickle mistress, and parks her haunches where she will- in this case, right on his lap, as the first few questions streamed in with a Channel Four flavour.( I bet Alex Reid feels the same way. ‘Ask me about cage fighting! Please!’) It was Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. John is now one of my latest heroes of education, and I might add, a very nice man indeed, who was mauled by the camera. A lesson for us all, next time we start frothing about someone on the glass teat.

My part was brief: it was eerie to see an enormous camera bearing down on John throughout, and by association, me, so I tried to look thoughtful and Dimbleby-ish. John also got the audience to be quiet by circling his arm in an enormous helicopter blade; you don’t see Robert Winston doing that. Not without a few sherbets in him.

And here’s a thing; have you ever noticed, on INSETs for example, that people love- and I mean they f*cking LOVE- to put their hands up and bore the arses off everyone with their personal sagas? Well the same peculiar rule of narcissism appears to operate in the lecture hall and seminar theatre. Any questions for John? ‘Why yes, I have a question.  But I’ll phrase it in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from a five minute explanation of who I am, my school, and what I think about the state of education. Then I’ll leave you to sieve through it like Tony from Time Team and discern something resembling an interrogative. Thank you.’ The session with John and me was just the beginning. When I went to see Katherine Birbalsingh the next day, one woman in the audience appeared to be pitching a white paper to cabinet. I could see Birbalsingh look at her, trying to find the question with a microscope and a pair of tweezers.

Hello Wellington- are you ready to ROCK? I can’t HEAR YOU.

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.

Whereas the Headline acts were all in the Marquis (the Wembley fillers of Wellington: the dream law firm of Starkey, Winston, Geldof, and Gove) more modest draws like myself were afforded accommodation more suitable to our needs. I was just glad not to have been given a portacabin and a set of juggling pins. The library was bright, and alarmingly larger than I was used to for public gigs. I bet Gove never thinks, ‘Shit, a library- I hope I fill it.’ I needn’t have worried- I counted forty chairs- not, I’d like to point out, assembled in anything like a lecture mode, but simply left at their tables. I nearly got everyone to stack them up and sit on the carpet, in an enormous and middle-class version of circle time. I resisted.  Unlike d’Abbro, my venue didn’t afford me a tie-clip microphone or a laser pointer. In many ways it was just like a very large sixth form lesson.

Birbalsingh: ‘Not Satan.’
I am happy, and entirely comfortable with saying that I think it went well; it wasn’t an unqualified success- I spent so long on the causes of the Behaviour Crisis that I barely made it to solutions and then questions- but it was a joy for me at least, start to finish. I felt like I was on my game, and the audience were polite and wise enough to express mannerly appreciation. Some of my non-gags even worked, so, like any landing you can walk away from, it was a success. I’d like to say thank you to everyone that attended, for giving up your time to listen to me- even the elderly man who sat at the back and shook his head furiously when I said that the point of education was to teach the next generation the best of what the previous generations have learned, in the hope that they do better than we did. Listen: he’d paid for his ticket, and he can shake or nod as much as he wants, he’s earned that. But I’m thinking, what the? Tempting as it was to say, ‘Tell me your concerns, wise man,’ I ignored it. Anthony Seldon came in for a minute- he must have been lost- and whispered in Gandalf’s ear, then they both legged it. I’d like to think that he said, ‘Leave it, Albert, he’s not worth it.’

Oh, and as I was talking, I played a game of spot the Old Andrew, who I was led to believe would be there. I scanned faces- and more came in as I spoke- and wondered. I even pondered.

And then it was over, fast as a bullet. I have to say, I enjoy public speaking tremendously. I even thought about politics at one point, but I can’t bear the thought of bathing in the blood of virgins, brutalising strangers and worshipping Satan. Maybe one day.

Also spoke to some lovely people who had the patience to wait behind- more names than my poor frontal lobe can bear (I write everything down)- and chat, like Ron, and Miranda, and Elizabeth, and Matt and Nick, and even some lovely staff who took the time to come up to me and tell me they enjoyed it. Really, there is no greater joy in the act than that; to connect with other people, hopefully to entertain, and perhaps even generate a silent dialogue with strangers, or offer them a stranger’s perspective. That’s enough for me. Paolo Coelho can have the whole inspiration and role model thing. I’ll settle for making some people a little bit happier or thoughtful for a moment.

The sense of relief was enormous; this is the highest profile gig I’ve played, and I only realised how clenched I was afterwards,  when I stated to relax so much I practically unravelled like a rump roast after the strings have been cut.

If you meet Old Andrew on the road to enlightenment, kill him.

For the benighted and uninitiated, Old Andrew is an excellent, anonymous blogger for whom I have enormous respect; in fact, it was the enjoyment his education blog provided me that convinced me that blogging wasn’t all about narcissism and endless introspective analyses of one’s entrails, but could be entertaining and informative, sincere, direct and ethical. He really is one of the best bloggers I’ve read, and if you want to you can find a link to him at the right hand side of this page. You will not be disappointed, unless you believe that children are naturally angelic, there is no behaviour problem in English schools, or ADHD is an empirically proven condition.

I shan’t tell you a scrap about him/ her/ it; whether Old Andrew is a man, Old, called Andrew, a woman, a hermaphrodite, a troglodyte, a child, a worker’s collective, an intelligent thought-cloud or a silicon-based life form. That is Old Andrew’s prerogative. I’m like Tony Stark- everyone knows I’m Iron Man. But Old Andrew is more like Batman, fighting stupidity behind a mask. Granted he blogs more slowly than Continental plates racing towards the Poles, but when he launches, you know all about it. Kudos to you, OA. Gotham City needs you.

There were others I wanted to see, but a body can only hold tension for so long, and besides, I had my last gig of the day- a panel discussion in the Old Gym with Tony Sewell, leader of generating Genius, the aspirational children’s organisation that works with black youngsters. (Can I say Black Youngsters? I just checked….yes…yes I can), Phil Beadle, the writer, Guardian columnist and teacher award-hoover, and John Murphy, the immaculately dressed Education Director of Oasis, the Christian Academy group (and interestingly enough, a Head Master SIX times over by the time he was 42. Holy shit. That gives me….well, I’d better get my skates on, that’s all I have to say). I was chairing the panel, a job I know less than zero about, so I watched Question Time a few times to follow how D-Dimb did it- apparently it was all about taking the glasses off and on a lot, and looking quizzical and bemused at everyone else’s stupidity. I decided to freestyle.

VIP section in the master’s Lodge.
This was a bit more awkward, as we were all perched on a table so small I can only describe it as indecently cosy. It felt like a remake of the Human Centipede. And we were treated to a single microphone between us, which turned what might have been an easy conversation into the driest Karaoke session ever. Oh, and we got more of ‘those’ questions from some people, although thankfully by this point it was more moderately distributed, something no doubt helped by the fact that I had forgotten the session finished ten minutes earlier than it did, and I left the audience about five minutes to get it all off their chest. There was a point when Sewell was describing his education: ‘I was in a failing school…that failed. Then I became a teacher in a school…that failed too.’ And I thought, ‘F*ck me- you’re a jinx.’ Didn’t say it, though.

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.

I might also say that Phil Beadle is unmistakable; there was something profoundly out of place about him at Wellington College, and I mean that as a compliment. He has an intensity and passion that is palpable. He absolutely is the real deal. Example: the title of the session was ‘How can schools be turned around?’ Rather than simply hack away at anything bowled at him, his first statement to the audience was, ‘Why on earth should I claim to be an expert on that? I’m a teacher. I can only proceed on the basis that a school is a series of classrooms.’ That, I imagine is a rarity- a man prepared to undersell himself in a situation where adding an imaginary mark-up would not only be unnoticeable, but also expected by some. 

He asked me at the end, ‘So just who is this Old Andrew bloke?’ and just as I was about to decide how to reply, he was swamped by a fan, or a rep, or agent or something. Little did he know that Old Andrew stood not three feet away……casting no shadow, no, nor reflection neither…

Outside I chatted to J-Dabb, saluted the Gods of teaching in joy at a job at least efficaciously  performed, and made the rest of my weekend. My knotted stomach was now free to enjoy the bounty of the hospitality arm of the festival, which was, I have to say, bounteous- there were secret kitchens, gardens and seating areas for the blessed of invite, favoured by the Festival’s Righteous Lanyard of Privilege. We were cosseted in the Master’s Lodge, Seldon’s modest cottage garret where he devises new ways of manufacturing Golden, Utopian children from the rough clay of the super rich. I can confirm that there were confectionaries and refreshments in abundance, and a stepped, tailored garden so heart-breakingly, Platonically ideal that it could have served as a murder scene in Inspector Morse. It was THAT pleasant. It was an elegant eyrie of agreeable beverages and reading material. As I came out of the bathroom, an enormous security man asked me, ‘Is that a toilet?’ to which the only answer I could honestly give by that point was, ‘I hope so.’

Of course, the headline act, the Beyonce Knowles of the Day was the Big Beast himself, Michael Gove. The Marquis (or Pyramid Stage) was predictably packed, but I wangled my way to near the front. Anthony Seldon himself introduced him in that strange, almost apologetic way that expresses a lifetime of weariness at the intellectual poverty of the dreadful people he has to meet. I missed his opening speech in the morning (I was busy willing my arrhythmic heart back into a pattern more conducive to metronomic employment in the car park, self medicating with cigarettes and happy thoughts) but despite his gnomic portrayal of a cynical Shylock, he had presence, a dry charm and a Leviathan confidence- and why shouldn’t he? The wizard was in his tower- that could launch a rocket. There was much to disagree with what he said, but you would be a braver man than I, Gungha Din, if you stood up and said so. I found his views on education relentlessly progressive- he spoke about the need for student voice (don’t get me started- I’ll pop something), the need for schools to teach creativity, the need for the teacher to be the facilitator, that kind of stuff- his children take classes in confidence (can you imagine? What do they do to children who aren’t sufficiently confident, I wonder? Shout at them?), and lessons on happiness (which I was busily puncturing with my mighty lance in the library earlier on. Maybe he heard me).

You see, that might work in Wellington- the children are supported, functional, lifted up by family networks that value education, that teach the child that he or she can be anything they want. These aren’t children who have been told they’re automatic failures- that they shouldn’t kid themselves on by having aspirations. These are children who can be comfortably invited to contribute student voice, because it will invariably be characterised by self restraint, consideration for altruism, and their duties to the community. East End kids aren’t shaped by this sense of noblesse oblige. They have other things to worry about.

My worry- and it is an enormous worry, and a legitimate one- is that the people who characterise themselves as the guardians of education- the ones who actually have the power to transform and transfigure education in the UK- have got it into their heads that the private sector model is the one that should form the blueprint of the state. And this is disastrous. It’s the same problem when we have a front bench, and a stream of education ministers who have, almost without exception, emerged from the womb of the independent sector. The only time they see the inside of a state school is when they’re visiting it with cameras. And of course it would be far too much to expect anything like an education minister who has actually educated anyone in a state school. We are the single most unrepresented majority in the education establishment today- and yet we are the biggest ball to play with, the biggest prize to paw at. This is the danger of equating state and independent.

So when I hear someone from the private sector tell me that state children need happiness lessons; that student voice will transform and soothe the wounds of our weeping classrooms, and that all teachers need to do is to treat the child as a holistic unit, and let all that lovely learning flow out, rather than restricting it with nasty boundaries and regulation, then I consider such commentators to be well meaning, but ignorant. These are children who already lack boundaries; who are already given too much of a voice in their education, to the exclusion of teachers; who need to be supported by boundaries, particularly in situations where they receive none at home. And as for creativity, may I remind the world, that approximately a third of our national curriculum is devoted to art, English, design, expressive arts, drama, and so on? Creativity cannot be taught by itself; it is always taught through the medium of other subjects. And happiness is a cretinous aim by itself. Heroine makes you happy, in a way. Shall we ask the dealers into the classroom?

And how far are we asking schools to intervene in the role of the parent and carer? And how well do we understand the nature of being happy anyway? Let’s see those hands…

To be continued…

Next instalment:

Gove’s speech, and day Two: Starkey’s Junk, the tears of a yummy mummy, and Birbal sings.

Jamie’s Dream School 2: The Baited Bear and the Referee


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.’
Starkey: ‘…’

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

Jamie’s Dream School: in special measures

‘I’m safe like a CRB check.’
Favourite quote from ‘Dream School’:
Internationally renowned Shakespearian actor Simon Callow: ‘Who’s heard of the Bard of Stratford?’
Gobby Egoist: ‘Omigod I live in Stratford, yeah!’

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s only one game in town this week, and it’s not Said Gadaffi and his suspiciously well-written Ph.D. thesis, oh no. It’s Jamie’s Dream School, which has been slouching towards us for months now; fans of light-entertainment pedagogy have been hugging themselves in anticipation like the Rapture was coming and they’d just been born again. This was worth a month’s worth of drearily wholesome Teacher’s TV.

How can anyone not like Jamie Oliver? Sure, he may be approaching near-divine ubiquitousness, only taking a break from the glass teat to allow Gok Wan or one of Simon Cowell’s ravenous combine harvesters to get a look in, but here surely is the Webster definition of having one’s heart in the right place. Boundless enthusiasm, talent and optimism is a cocktail that brings the worst out in other people, I suspect.

His School Dinner series actually knocked a few dominoes over, and made at least a few schools hide the Mars Bars- and the sight of those ghastly parents slotting Toblerones and iced doughnuts through the wire mesh fences like angry, red-faced drug dealers to their corpulent, doomed offspring was the most devastatingly upsetting social experiment since Milgram got busy with the dials.

Dream School was doomed from the start, though. Not as telly- as telly it’s an uncomfortable work of art, and until Mad Men series 4 arrives in the post (believe me, it won’t even have a chance to hit the carpet. I have a catcher’s mitt next to the letter box) it’s this month’s wide-screen must-have. As an example of how not to teach children; it should be in a glass box and tastefully up lit in the Museum d’Orsay, surrounded by red ropes and brass poles. Teachers will queue to see it, prefaced by solemn warning videos that put it in context.

This school was a three-wheeled lorry; it was a ship with a hole in the hull. And here’s where some one had blunder’d;

Wrong assumptions about teenagers

Jamie had a bad experience with school, and only found his calling once he had left, first in cooking, and later in celebrity Essex capering. He was undoubtedly bursting with talent, intelligence, curiosity and probably possessed of a good character. The danger is to assume that all people, all children are like that. There are very good reasons why not every child leaves school with golden scrolls, cups and shields, and frankly sometimes it’s not everyone else’s fault; sometimes it’s down to the kids themselves. It’s ludicrously, childishly naive to say that all teenagers would blossom like tulips if it weren’t for the nasty system that exists purely, it seems, to grind them like grist into grain.

‘I reject his analysis of Tudor etiquette, innit’

By the time they get to secondary school, most children have pretty well developed personalities, habits and character; believe me, the clay is thrown a long time before they get to high school, and teachers face the challenge of taking hundreds of diverse representatives of society and making a decent fist of educating them. Let me assure you that many children by that age do not entirely fancy the idea of school, and are delighted to share this fact with you, in ways that range from swearing at you, laziness, up to (and including) violence. And they don’t do this because they are forced to by a system that doesn’t care. They don’t do this because they haven’t been ‘shown how’ to behave. They choose to do it.

Some people start to hop up and down when I suggest this: that teenagers simply need to be shown love and trust, and they will engage with Tolstoy and Curie with gusto; that they, to some extent can’t help themselves; that they are products of a world that wasn’t fair. Let them hop. Disadvantage is a hideous fact of life, and mere poverty doesn’t necessarily reduce to rudeness, violence or playing the thug. By the age of twelve it’s an empty claim to say that children don’t know how to behave. They do, of course they do. Some don’t want to. Til my last breath I’ll believe in freewill, and the fact that we are the captains of our own destiny, or at least the destiny that faces us. We choose how to act and speak, no one else, and we are responsible for our actions. I’ve met (and taught) students from horrendous poverty who worked hard and got the grades because, as one famously said to me, ‘I want to get out.’ 

Jamie is fantastic at talking to people; he had the kids eating out of his righteous rudeboy hand. But one of the appeals he made to them was that, ‘You all feel to some extent that education let you down,’ or words to that extent. That simply isn’t true, almost certainly. What’s probably happened is that they didn’t value education; or thought school was an enormous, three-dimensional version of Facebook, where they could chat to their pals and sell Flapjacks. Friends of mine from third-world backgrounds are appalled by how lightly our children (and their families) often treat free education- in their countries, children face a ten mile walk to school and back, if one exists at all. No books are provided. And I feel vaguely ashamed for our over-privileged, flabby ingrates.

They’re not in the last chance saloon because no one gave them a chance- they’re there because they didn’t recognise a chance when they saw it. David Starkey, in his brattish, awful way was trying to verbalise this, but did so with so little grace that I found myself siding with Malcolm McDowell in If, taking pot shots at the school masters from the roof top.

Teaching is all about expertise

Cruel and unusual.

This was another axiomatic fumble. The idea seemed to be that if only the subject teachers were good enough at what they wanted to teach, then the children would fall into single-filed awe at their mastery. This is far from true. Subject knowledge is a vital part of a teacher’s repertoire, of course- there’s little point being a teacher if you have nothing to teach- but for most teachers, a degree level or equivalent is quite enough to be at least ten steps ahead of the kind of knowledge you’ll need to teach in a classroom. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the majority of GCSE papers. When I started teaching RS years ago, I entered the classroom with a Masters in Philosophy from a decent University and a profound lack of content knowledge about Jewish food laws, or the five pillars of Islam. Petrified at first, I soon found that with a little diligence, I could get on just fine- A-level took more rigour, and a lot of brushing up, but to be educated to one step past the student, and possessed of a little intelligence and professionalism, is enough in most cases to teach a subject at secondary level. Of course, the more knowledge the better, but it’s not a necessary precedent.

But this show seemed to rest on the premise that international experts would magically transform the learning of the unloveliest of NEETS. Wrong, dead wrong. The teachers in this program had an abundance of ability and knowledge in their field- and most of it was superfluous to their needs. You don’t need William bloody Shakespeare to teach a room full of kids with no English GCSEs- you need a good teacher who knows the GCSE syllabus. Anything beyond that was unnecessary, like driving to Tesco in a Lamborghini Gallardo Spider- all that juice in the bonnet but nowhere to put it. So our academic sledgehammers were sent to work on the walnuts, and they found it just as hard to get to the good bits without smashing everything to pieces.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that, without prompting, I would put a tenner on the bet that every one of those kids had barely or never heard of the Olympiad of experts Oliver had lassoed into this project, and consider it very safe indeed. The cultural and intellectual circumference of some children is genuinely frightening- Daley Thomson was a legend when I was ruining my Spectrum 48K on his desperate console game, but he may as well be Plato’s next door neighbour for all the impact his name would have on  most plimsoll-dodging teenagers today. Robert Winston, Alvin Hall, Alastair Campbell….all stalwarts of contemporary culture, all big noises in their own worlds; but there’s nothing like a teenager’s incomprehension to make you realise that you’re only famous if people have heard of you. None of these kids were likely to go, ‘No WAY, I can’t believe the Poet Laureate is going to teach us poetry!’ because most of them won’t know what a Poet Laureate was. Or indeed poetry.

We can’t all talk at once

Behaviour management is, I believe I might have said a few times before, absolutely fundamental to good teaching and learning. If you don’t have the kids behaving reasonably well, then you might as well go home, because they’re not going to learn anything. This doesn’t seem to occur to most people involved in running education, apparently, and the number of times I’ve heard people say that interesting lessons will solve behaviour problems…well, it’s a lot of times, let’s just say that. This was joylessly proven every single lesson in the program as we watched how quickly they were ruined by pointless, self-referential teenage jibber-jabber, as all the big gobs were determined to have their say no matter what. It was deeply uncomfortable to see the apparently lovely Simon Callow start off with them, only to see their attentions dissolve like chocolate in lava after about ten seconds. And then they started arguing. And then they were all telling each other to shut up. And poor Callow is left spluttering at them and being ignored, because he’s not important to them- what’s important is that they get to have their say, and that nobody cusses them.

‘Good weed, white wine, I come alive in the night time.’

It is, I have to say, the world that some of us don’t just visit, but inhabit in our professional careers. I could have told them this for free. I don’t know who acted as consultant on this program, but they were either deliberately ignored for televisual fireworks, or misinterpreted, because only the greenest of rookies would have thought that this experiment would work in a meaningful way. Disruptive pupils can be distracted for a short time by novelty, or by catching their curiosity. But eventually the teacher has to realise that they can’t be entertained every minute of every lesson. Sometimes, learning is just work, in the same way that sometimes training is just lifting weights or running around a track at six in the morning, and that life isn’t always fun.
And that’s when they’ll lose interest, and need to be directed for their greater good. And that means sometimes being strict, and always having rules that everyone has to follow. And the first rule of the classroom is that not everyone can talk at once. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a lesson; you’re just standing in the same room as a crowd of children who happen to be talking to each other.

Nobody can make you behave

David Starkey came a total cropper on this one, and serves him right. Actually I’m quite angry with Starkey, because in many ways what he said echoed my own opinion- that many of the kids had put themselves in that position, that they needed self-discipline, that without the ability to restrain their own egoist desires they would be slaves to their whims, etc. But then he p*ssed all that good will up against the staffroom wall by being so explicitly, wilfully repellent to the children (for God’s sake, he called one of them fat, and called them all failures) that I’m surprised they didn’t turn him into a totem pole. He blew it in an enormous, spectacular way, and it’s no good stalking off in a huff and saying how awful they were. They were- but so was he. His attitude was one of enlightened superiority, but he displayed less manners than they did in the first few minutes. it was excruciating.

The worst part of it is, some will see him representative of the assertive discipline technique, that he is the natural result of a behavioural system that relies on sanctions as well as rewards. He doesn’t- he’s merely one unpleasant particle on the spectrum of that process, and an angry, petulant smear on the windscreen of others who drive more carefully through classroom management. You can be tough and polite; you can be assertive and calm. The kids might well be lucky to have you there, but if they don’t realise it, there’s no point expecting it like some kind of divine right. You have to show them why they should be interested, not rebuke them with insults when they don’t slavishly dance at your every utterance.

‘Bit of Dewey, bit of Bloom…bosh!’

Nobody  can make you do what you don’t want to do; at some level, we have to cooperate with the person controlling us. To get children to behave, they have to know that you care about their education; so much so, in fact, that you’re prepared to use sanctions against anyone who needs some coaxing. With care, rigour and consistency, most children can be engaged with this process. Eventually, the need to punish dwindles as the pupils learn to enjoy the comfort and security of a well-run classroom, and the benefits that it provides to their education. The ones who still won’t comply with this can be dealt with in more selective ways.

Sometimes this means exclusion. Sometimes it means that they slip through the net. But no system is perfect, nor should we expect it to be so. For schools to be well run there have to be sanctions against those who resist social mores. People who rebel against the system within which they operate can expect the system to respond. And that is why many of these children end up as NEETs, or other acronyms. Nobody said life was going to be perfect. Sometimes we have to just do our best and deal with the consequences.

This program wasn’t a failure at all; it was a brilliant way to generate debate about education, and you know you’ve done something special when kids and non-teachers are talking about how schools are run and what it all means. But the crucial problem with Jamie’s Dream School is that it seemed to assume that teaching isn’t a skill at all, but some kind of verb that happens when you turn up to a room full of kids with ties on. Teaching is an art and a craft, not something stapled on to subject knowledge. I’m still learning to be a teacher, and I hope I never stop. Let’s face it, if even Rolf Harris can’t get his classes spellbound with his boyish, divine enthusiasm, then I think we can safely say that expertise alone isn’t enough. Teaching is a profession, not a job, not an accident that occurs when the educated mean the un. Jamie’s Dream School is in Special Measures, as far as I’m concerned, with a notice to improve.

The Head Master, John D’Abbro, has a big job to do, and I’m not sure if he’s up to it; what are the school rules? Are there any? Do the students have any expectations to conform to, or is that merely for the teachers? In other words, is this the Land of Do As You Please for the students, many of whom will have been doing as they pleased for some time? And I fear that after their holiday in Channel Four High School for Narcissists, they’ll find that the rest of the world isn’t that bovvered.

Only time will tell.