Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. Crackingly good cook, Jamie. Cheeky chappie Jamie. Top bloke, diamond geezer Jamie. You've done it again, mate. True, this time around there was no wordplay involving imminent disrobing. Somehow 'Naked Schoolmaster' wouldn't have cut it the same way 'Naked Chef' did all those years ago. People would have probably thought of a blue movie set in a girls' school. Still your purpose was clear: to bare the iniquities that you think exist within our education system.
For the last few weeks I have been watching Jamie Oliver's new programme, 'Dream School'. Or maybe I should say that for the last few weeks I have been amusing myself with Jamie Oliver's new show, because at the end of the day the intention of both the production team and the Naked Chef himself has been to entertain. Let's leave the whole 'save our kids, our schools and our education system' sloganeering for later, shall we?
The problem the programme poses is the following. Every year almost half of 16-year-olds leave school without the recommended 5 A-C grades at GCSE level. Their future looks bleak and given the current employment situation, it is very likely that they'll end up joining the long dole queue. Which is why Jamie Oliver, not alien to failure in school himself, has taken over a building, revamped it, redecorated it and reopened it as his 'Dream School'. Or an academy, to make it shorter. Twenty youngsters from all walks of life and backgrounds are given a second chance to do better. One of the aims of the series is to try to shine a light on what went wrong with these teenagers. Was it the status quo? Their parents? Their school? Or, how about if they were let down by themselves? In order to answer these questions and in an attemp to get to the bottom of this conundrum, Jamie recruits the help of several celebrities from the fields of politics, the creative and cultural industries, finance, sciences and sport. The majority of them has never taught at a school. Most of them are very well known in their area of expertise and all of them make regular television appearances. The challenge is on.
Or is it? Oh, dear! Who would be a teacher these days. Especially when one minute you're doing Shakespeare at a famous theatre and the next you're given a reality-check by a pack of feral seventen and eighteen-year-olds who've never heard of you and are not interested in the bloke from 'posh Stratford'.
Jamie's intentions are laudable. On that I fully agree with my wife, with whom I've been watching the series. But education is not like cooking, even if in both you have to get the mix of ingredients right.
One of the many mistakes that people make about the art of teaching is that it's easy. Anyone can do it. So, let me be clear about one aspect of it: anyone, and I mean anyone, can waltz into a classroom and teach a class. You don't have to have studied tons and tons of books on pedagogical methods and psychology. But the question is, will your students remember the lesson after it's ended? Will they come away from it thinking that it changed their perspective of the world? Maybe even help them understand that world better?
Because good teachers don't just teach, good teachers educate. And brilliant teachers inspire. And my totally unscientific study of teaching in the UK reveals that there are a lot of brilliant teachers out there.
All of Jamie's guests are outstanding figures in their respective fields, except for, in my humble opinion, the historian David Starkey and Alastair Campbell. The former makes me cringe everytime I see him on television because he lacks the magical touch that a Tristam Hunt, Simon Schama and even, a controversial Niall Ferguson bring to their series. The latter was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq and one of the most polemic - for want of a more appropriate word - political players in the grand charade that was New Labour. Starkey lacked mettle in his first encounter with his pupils. He lost control of the class and tried to reinstate it by offending one of the students (he called him 'fat'; the student replied by remarking on Starkey's height. Serves you right, David!). However, no matter how excellent these do-gooders are, they lack the nous and sapience that come with the experience of educating. Jamie's celebrities are self-centred by nature. His students, however, lack equilibrium, their centre already having been removed. Mostly by themselves.
And to me that's the main problem at the heart of 'Dream School'. Oliver blames the system. But the system is made up of teachers, support staff, administrators, officials, policy-makers, ministers and many more. Who are you blaming specifically, Jamie? How about focusing on the student who has a brilliant teacher and yet spends his or her whole time speaking in class and inconveniencing Miss/Mrs/Sir? Is the system also to blame?
With this series, Mr Oliver has bitten off more than he can chew, in my opinion. I don't dislike Jamie. I was in favour of his campaign to improve school meals some years ago. Occasionally I join my wife on the couch to watch one of his series, whether it be his trip through the States or his lobbying for healthy food. But on this occasion, I think the programme would have benefited more from a professional approach. Teaching is not like cooking. Unlike the latter, it doesn't end when you switch the oven off.
However, I can't fault Jamie. He's not the only one who's had a pop at the education system. The previous government made it easy for people who'd lost their jobs in the City (London's financial hub) during the 2008 economic meltdown to go into education. A six-month training course and you're a teacher! Would any of those who thought this policy up have put themselves at the mercy of someone who'd taken a crash course in surgery in the same length of time? Recently we had Michael Gove, our new Education Secretary, saying that he wanted to deploy ex-army personnel in our classrooms to instil more discipline in our children. Has the guy seen the mess the military's created in Iraq and Afghanistan?
It's worth remarking, too, that the programme does highlight some of the problems affecting education in the UK. One of the tutors who fared better with the kids was Ellen MacArthur when she took the youngsters out yachting. But then, she didn't have the full class. The message? Smaller class sizes. Professor of Science Robert Winston and world famous photographer Rankin also were also accepted by the pupils because thay had a more hands-on approach. The verdict? Make lessons more interactive.
Still, though, watching the likes of Simon Callow and Rolf Harris complaining about how dfficult was to reach out to the 'yoof', had me pondering if these two same celebs would have allowed the late Peter Graves to pilot their aeroplane just because he played Captain Clarence Oveur in the film of the same name. Simon and Rolf, it is hard to engage with the 'yoof', because you haven't got the skills to do it. That's why teachers teach and you two act and do versions of 'Stairway to Heaven' respectively. Each to their own.
The timing of 'Dream School' is unfortunate, too. Cuts is "le mot d'ordre" nowadays (or 'savings' as most of the government literature euphemistically puts it) and with the menacing 'free schools' movement, spearheaded by the journalist and writer Toby Young, gaining ground, state-run, educational establishments are bracing themselves for difficult times ahead. To paraphrase Roger Waters, Mr Oliver: 'We do need good education/But we don't need no chef control/No cheekie-chappiness in the classroom/Jamie leave teaching alone/Hey, Jamie, leave teachers alone/All in all, they always are the first patsies in the wall/All in all, they always are the first patsies in the wall.
Next Post: ‘Of Literature and other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd March at 11:59pm (GMT)