Sunday 20 March 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

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.

© 2011

Next Post: ‘Of Literature and other Abstract Thoughts’, to be published on Wednesday 23rd March at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Fabulous post, as always.
    He should have employed Brian Cox and Gareth Malone :)
    The science project in the biosphere was heartbreaking too when all the kids but one, ran out for a 'fag' thus ensuring they could not return to the project.
    Alvin Hall's math class was good, but he himself was not impressed with the students at all :)
    I agree with you, the problem with the project was Jamie biting off more than he could chew since the students' sole purpose and achievement seems to be being seen 'on the telly'. Sad, huh?

  2. Hi, Shaista, nice to have you back!

    This week's ep was excruciating to watch with that girl searing her way through the headteacher's intervention.

    I totally agree with you on Jane's project in the biosphere. It also exposed pupils' priorities. One fag is worth more than a top lesson with one of the world's top scientists.

    I liked Alvin's but found him slightly patronising. Still, he was inspiring and probably fared better than most of the others.

    Is the programme entertaining? Yes. Is it useful in the long run? No, I don't think so. Brian Cox would have been much better than Starkey and Callow.

    Have a brilliant week.

    Greetings from London.

  3. So Naked Chef is an old show that we are watching on our tv now?! Oh well..but it is not my favorite anyway. My favorite is Nigella's.

    I had a teaching experience once when I gave tuition classes to two siblings brother and sister, they were probably six and five. I was probably in my third year in college trying to make some extra bucks and they were my neighbours from across the apartment hall. Not sure whether I was a good teacher or whether they learned anything but they certainly loved me because they would both scream teacher, teacher every time they saw me come home.

    What makes a good teacher, this I better ask my son. He says a good teacher is one that teaches like a parent. Well that is one 18 year old opinion.

    There is a new mess being created just as we speak. Happy Sunday.

  4. I have not seen this show - but I think I did see some publicity for it ... just as I saw publicity for his "let's help the fat people in West Virginia" - I'm a WVA native, so I was curious, but I never was able to see the show -if it even made it as a "show"

    I agree -Brian Cox - ahhh, Professor Brian Cox -- *silly old smile thinking of Prof Cox*

  5. Ah, everyone thinks they can fix schools!

    Even with great teachers, the "fixing" of human beings takes a whole lot more. Schools are a microcosm of life and they are there to show those who want to see what is wrong with our culture, with our other institutions, including parenting, including job availability, neighborhood support systems.

    We've dumped all our problems in the basket we call education.
    I agree with your conclusions, Cuban.

  6. It sounds like a really interesting program. Better than the stuff we have in the states. Funny, I have friends over their in the UK that are always sending me You tubes of programming from over there and I find it so much more entertaining and informative. I always enjoy your sunday morning thoughts and observations, ACIL. I loved this, "Because good teachers don't just teach, good teachers educate. And brilliant teachers inspire." Beautifully and wonderfully put! Cheers and wonderful to read you as always.

  7. We are all to blame for the state of public education.

  8. Very interesting thoughts. I hadn't heard of Jamie Oliver's new series but I suspect that you're right about certain aspects of the educational system and that we need a different approach.

    I adore Oliver's approach to cooking and to teaching others about healthy living. His series on the school meals years ago turned him into my hero. But I do think that him focusing on the entire education system is probably a mistake. There are just too many factors to make a coherent argument.


  9. Let's not forget to blame technology too...

  10. All true. Excellent post, Cuban. I have to say, you come with some lines that deserve to become part of the lexicon, like 'teaching is not like cooking. Unlike the latter, it doesn't end when you switch the oven off'. You're so to the point, and your reasoning is irreproachable. Not living in the UK, I don't know the show, but I'm convinced you've hit the right nail on the head.
    Good teachers are the most essential part of a healthy society. Hands down. I do wonder when policy makers will wake up to the fact that in order to attract and keep qualified, motivated educators with passion for their profession, they need to be well-paid and better-respected. rted.

  11. Thanks for stopping by my blog, and for your kind comment. I am new to your blog, looking forward to enjoying yours stories and reflections.


  12. I haven't seen the show but it is always interesting to see how people approach such things as education. I think anyone trying to make a difference is a good thing.

  13. I love that new banner image with the sky background.

    My husband is a big fan of Jamie Oliver’s recipes and we both love the changes he’s brought to British state school in nutrition and good cooking/eating habits. That’s quite ambitious of him to tackle improving the entire school now and far more worthy than our Jersey Shore reality shows in the States.

    I’m guessing throwing celebrities in the classroom makes for better TV than for good teaching. I share your reservations of applying culinary skills to educational reform. I also appreciate your distinction between teaching and educating. Ha on borrowing The Wall!

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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