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.