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An English lesson for Jamie Oliver; a lesson for us all that teaching is hard

Posted on 5 March 2011 | 2:03pm

I finally caught up with the first episode of Jamie’s Dream School last night. May I begin by ticking off Mr Oliver for using ‘less’ when he meant ‘fewer.’ Tut, tut, as fellow teacher David Starkey might have said; ‘must do better,’ English teacher Simon Callow must tell him.

Jamie said the students at Dream School all got ‘less than the magic 5 GCSEs.’ He meant ‘fewer.’ How can I explain it Jamie? Put simply: less relates to a general, fewer to a specific. So – the Dream School teachers often wished there had been less talking in class; and that would have meant fewer words, with fewer students talking at the same time. Or, to put it in cookery terms, there was less junk food at Dream School than the kids might have been used to, but fewer Mars Bars and Big Macs. I hope that is now settled and understood, and we won’t be making the same mistake again.

So now to the substance of the programme. This was the first in a series, and so it is too early to make definitive judgements. The first has to communicate a basic concept (done), themes (done), introduce some of the individuals involved (done – and believe me, there are a lot of characters involved, among staff and teachers alike) and at the same time engage and interest the audience sufficiently for many who had been drawn by the pre-publicity to want to come back for more, not to mention make the odd visit to the Channel Four website dedicated to the programme. I think it probably did all of those things.

My daughter and her friends certainly seem engaged by it, though I fear the good looks of Henry, one of the main features of Episode One, might have had something to do with that. What did you think? I texted her from my overseas hotel. We enjoyed it, she said. But less Jamie more Henry please. Oh, and Starkey was a fool for calling Conor fat. I should point out that her use of less and more is correct here btw. She could have said ‘fewer shots of Jamie and more of Henry’, but as Starkey bemoaned, kids never use two words when one, abbreviated-to-text-language word will do.

For my part, one of the reasons I wanted to take part was to see whether I was right in a couple of assumptions I tend to make. First, that most young people are good decent people who if given a chance tend to take it. And second, that teaching is a bloody sight harder than those who like to criticise teachers, and blame them for the ills of modern youth and modern society, might believe. Both were broadly borne out.

I have a basic problem with the way most of our media cover education. As I have said before, most senior people in the media use private schools for their own kids, and have a nasty habit of running down State schools to justify their own decisions. There was a moment where Jamie said that some of the Dream School kids ‘even’ went to private schools, the ‘even’ confirming the widely held view that private must automatically mean better than State. It is not a view I hold.

My own children went to a State primary school whose head was forced out, in part by parent power, (The Big Society at work) after a dreadful Ofsted report. The head went on to run a private school. The current head is one of the best teachers I have ever met.

But Jamie’s heart is in the right place, and whilst the issues in education are more complex than, say, school dinners, his idea of seeing whether people like him, me, Starkey, Mary Beard, Simon Callow, Cherie Blair, Rolf Harris, Daley Thompson and others could re-inspire youngsters back onto the learning track was a good one. According to the trailer, my initial efforts are on next Wednesday, and there is a taster already on the website here.

I have stayed in touch with a fair few of the students, mainly via twitter and email, and I am sure that some of them will go onto make a good deal of themselves. The thesis in a way is that ‘the system’ let them down, but Henry’s story shows that it is more complicated than that. I was genuinely surprised by his background. I thought he was a working-class kid. He lives in a fantastic house with two very middle-class parents and brothers who have done well at school. That he is different, and prefers smoking dope to reading books or worrying about exams and the future, cannot all be blamed on teachers. I’m not sure any of it can.

One of the kids not featured so far, Jourdelle, was really interesting for me. As viewers will get to see, he is extraordinarily bright and pleasant, and a real team player. I am genuinely baffled as to why he didn’t do well in school. I didn’t really have time to find out. But I suspect if I did, I would find a more complicated story than ‘teaching is crap, the system let him down.’ For others, I did get to know about their backgrounds, and the story of their difficulties is as much in their family history, and their local environment, as it is in bad teaching.

I have spoken to some of the students about the first episode. Some really liked it. Some were disappointed, but that is because one hour cannot show all the richness of their lives or of the experience of the weeks spent together. But I think it will develop and grow in a way that will be of benefit to them, and hopefully to a broader debate. For my part, I see it as a useful reminder that teaching is hard, really hard, and teachers need support – financial and moral – not endless criticism.

To that end, I have done an interview with today’s Times Educational Supplement on my favourite teacher from school, my German teacher Mr Webster, illustrated by a photo of me wearing a tweedy jacket and what looks like a Mum-knitted, zip-up sweater with the collar outside the jacket collar.

‘He was strict if he had to be, but you got a lot out of him if you behaved. I can see with my own children when they talk about teachers: there are those you like and those you respect, but if you can get a combination of that in a teacher, the chances are they are teaching you very very well. Mr Webster was like that.’

I tried to be like that in Dream School. As to whether I succeeded, that is for the kids to say. Some would say I did, others maybe that I didn’t. But I enjoyed it. And I learned a lot. I hope they did too.

  • Gillian C.

    Re; Less and Fewer. The simplest way to remeber that “less” refers to quantity and “fewer” refers to a number of items. The example we were given is “Less butter and Fewer eggs” simples!

  • Woosiep47

    Lost count at the number of times we were told “the education system had let them down” hmm would be more than a bit offended if i was a teacher. Surely parents (or society if you want) are more to blame.doesnt fit with Jamies simplistic view of life though. “respect” and the meaningless “disrespect” kept coming up all through the show. Interesting that Henry was a nice middle class boy rueing his mistakes with Ellen but as soon as home was back to that ridiculous street patois and attitude..just sayin as they say

  • Duncan Phipp-macintyre

    Fascinating.
    Furthermore very interesting to see once again how male teachers are vital to the development of boys specifically- I have never met a male language teacher who was not inspired by a male language teacher whilst at school – as well as great female language teachers. It was true for me too – I was head of languages before becoming disabled.

  • Natachakennedy

    In grammatical terms; “Less” refers to uncountables like water, flour, salt, sugar, lime juice, garam masala, pepper etc. “Fewer” refers to countables like prawns, onions, apples, turnips, cans of tomatoes, etc. I should know I used to be an English teacher, maybe Jamie can understand it if you use ingredients…

  • It’s a shame this whole programme doesn’t challenge the stereotype that our young people are out of control. Instead it just adds to it. I would really have liked to have seen a group of bright kids who are doing well despite their circumstances given the star treatment, and look at how their achievements can be boosted by expert time and attention. I thought it was a shame that Oliver drove into the school in his top-of-the-range Range Rover, blacked out windows and all. If you want to encourage people to find out what it is like teaching and learning in our schools, encourage them to become a school governor and step up to provide support and encouragement.

  • Bulcote Cowboy

    General / specific maybe one way of explaining it. Another, perhaps simpler, is that if you can count them – sheep, grains of sand even – it’s fewer. If you can’t – wool, sand – it’s less. You could do with one fewer typos in this. Onto should be on to.

  • Gillian C.

    I don’t understand why these young people in the so-called Dream School seem to be incapable of simply listening. That’s how to learn about things. That and reading of course.
    There is a time to listen, a time to make notes and a time to talk and interact with the teacher and fellow pupils. They have no self-discipline.
    They also take offence at the drop of a hat. David Starkey was wrong to say what he said to Connor (who is kind of cute really) but Starkey went to school in a different era, when those sort of comments were all too common.
    But, the point is, these sort of comments generally don’t do any lasting damage to reasonably normal well adjusted people It’s a cruel old world out there and letting youngsters at school rule the roost does them no favours whatsoever for preparing them for life in the real world.
    A good teacher i.e. one that enjoys teaching and loves their particular subject always gives and gets the respect and admiration they deserve. It comes naturally.

  • Olli Issakainen

    I remember watching That´ll Teach ´Em reality TV programme. In it 30 students aged 16 were sent to state boarding school as it was 50 years ago.
    The school had a fierce headmaster and domineering matron.
    I also watched AC teaching on C4. I think he did really well. Usually teachers manage to kill the natural curiosity of the students.
    Teachers should have more authority these days.
    According to a new study the so-called best schools in Finland do not develop the skills of the students as well as many other schools.
    I was elected as the best pupil to one of the best schools in Finland and told that I was the best ever pupil there – even though I hardly studied at all because of my preoccupation on British football.
    But my experience is that those who do well in high school seldom make it to the very top later in life. An average schoolfellow of mine, for example, is nowadays a director at Nokia.
    In Britain, just over 7.2% of pupils attend private schools but make up over a quarter of the intake at the 25 most selective universities, and 46.6% at Oxford.
    Michael Gove, by the way, is the author of a number of neoconservative tracts. The ongoing shift towards marketised education is combined with nostalgia-driven approach to curriculum.

  • As a man who has spent most of his career in teaching, I thank you for the recognition that it is not a soft option and also that teachers tend to be easy targets when the blame game starts. On the subject of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ is it not the case that the former is used with uncountable and the latter with countable nouns?

  • David Sindall

    I enjoyed the programme but just thought it was superficial. Most teachers follow one class with another and by the end of the day they are knackered. Then they go home have marking, prep for the next day and to deal with all the other things that are going on in their lives. The celebrity teachers are in an easy position. What I saw of Simon Callow suggests he has the ability to deliver a good one off lesson. This isn’t the same as being a good teacher and I’m worried that the series will end up blaming teachers, yet again.

  • Elizabeth

    I think a more useful starting point for this programme would have been to give an insight into the realities of teaching today: the endless recording and monitoring of everything you do, the limited budgets, the classes of over 30 children, the lack of resources, the fatigue, OFSTED, paperwork, league tables. . .The real issue is how to improve the experiences of children and teachers within the current system. My school barely has funding for basic equipment and staffing. Most schools are in a similar position. The experiences offered by the ‘Dream School’ are simply not within the reach of state schools. As a teacher I am a little patronised by this programme. I am not sure Jamie would appreciate someone with no experience in the food industry offering him advice about running his restaurants, so why does he feel qualified to head a show about education?

  • Swansea Jill

    I was exactly like Henry, only a female version (albeit the swooning fans)! Fewer than 5 GCSE’s and no interest in eduation, yet I felt a deep need to go away and stare at my belly button for a few years. Eventually I enrolled in night school and now work as a political speechwriter.

    Ultimately, if you want to succeed, you’ll find a way to do it.

    From my experience, Henry seems like the creative type. He just needs to find his focus and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. My bet is he’ll be most successful than his brothers.

  • HJR

    There is hugely insufficient recognition of teachers as a professionals in the same way that lawyers and doctors are considered professionals. Communicating to children is an immensely difficult think to do and it requires a huge amount of training and experience to begin to do it successfully. One of the few ways to increase the value we place on teachers as professionals is simply to pay qualified teachers more. It is worth remembering that one cannot become a lawyer, doctor, etc without first being educated by skilled professionals.

    Similarly the points made about the differences between the Dream School format and teaching 30 children on the hour every hour with a state school budget are totally accurate, as are those comments about who is critiquing our education system. The gulf in experience, educational expertise and professionalism between Jamie and his Headteacher is enormous and very revealing.

    Going to school gives someone experience in education, not educating.

  • Robert

    Less than?

    Fewer than?

    Unfortunately this discussion is a distraction from the fact that this Tory government is bringing about fewer jobs in the economy and less disposable income for many many millions of families throughout the country.

  • Richard

    A fascinating “temperature taking” of a few of those children who at ages 16 and 17 totally failed to engage in education. A useful follow up would be to get a group of excellent professional teachers and put them to work with such a group.
    How sad that some of the students are so bolstered up by their own disruptive past that they cannot see, even at their age, having no motivation or respect for authority, that such a programme might prove to be a route out of the mire. Henry showed signs of remorse re his past educational record, and will have a good job by the end of the series.
    The attitude displayed by some, and their requirement not to be disrespected, is most telling. They have never been taught by their parents that respect has to be earned. They are all too aware of their rights! However, their course to self destruction, and other peoples’ rights were never adequately explained to them
    Revealingly, we saw the headmaster, Jobsworth, leap to the PC requirement of seeing Starkey as a disciplinary target. Too ready to go on automatic pilot and make sure the right forms were filled in and a brat was able to claim another scalp, to go with the many that slick tongued little darlings like him have taken over the years, knowing their rights and they will get the full protection of the system. Why can we not see that, wrong as the name calling was, it was water off a duck’s back to that individual.
    Finally, the disruptives involved will make most parents determine that they do not want their children to be “taught” alongside them. Perhaps this will start a debate on how such individuals should be discouraged from destroying the educational opportunities for the majority.
    PS In the trailer you look as though you were able to engage with the class, Al. Who writes your scripts?

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  • Cat

    I really enjoyed the programme AC!
    The most exciting thing for me will be to watch the teachers learn and grow as they discover more about their students and realise that no matter what great resources you have, if you do not respect them and want the best for them, they will not respond. They also like a bit of drama, which is where Robert Winston came up trumps. His manner with the young people was delightful to watch. Can’t wait for next week!