Thursday, 17 March 2011

Jamie Oliver's Dream School

Let's have this right, "Dream School" is many things, but it is not really about education.

It is first and foremost a programme commissioned by a TV channel, which means its primary concern is to draw in viewers to placate the advertisers. So it has to a) entertain the watching audience b) try and extend coverage to the newspapers and the blogosphere, in order to attract further viewers to watch it.

I think on this level it's rather successful. Though I have no idea of the viewing figures, to judge by the chatter on twitter and the number of people (like me here) posting blogs about it, I think it's created the necessary stir and pother. Plus some of its famous names are people with ready access to the media, so Alistair Campbell can write columns in the Broadsheets and Simon Callow gets interviewed about the enterprise in the arts pages. Job done I'd say.

I think that despite this cynical recipe of reality TV-meets-celebrities-meets socially concerning issue (education), the programme has a lot of salvageable insights. But again, let's not dupe ourselves that it is attempting to redress the educational ills of our country.

1) The call to arms to celebrities to mount a rescue mission is a mechanism I find depressing.
However, the calibre of someone like Lord Winston is a bit different to an ex-soap star dancing on ice. Winston, Rankin, Alvin Hall, Jazzy B & communications maven Campbell, have all turned out to have a natural aptitude to lead, to instruct and teach. To reach kids written off as unreachable (and who in plenteous moments of squaring up to one another or just being distracted suggest they still have such a propensity).

But there is still a lingering feeling of this is for charidee, or a good cause at least. I wonder what the celebs' thought processes were? Did they genuinely think they could help reach some troubled kids? (Starkey's continous sniping on feral children and generational spite suggests he had pre-conceived ideas far removed from this). Were they keen to be part of a differing model of education, but then what interest and investment do they normally have in education? Were they just curious to see how this social experiment might turn out? Did they want to test themselves, see if they could inspire a hostile, tough crowd? Were they doing their old mate Jamie a favour, or because he leaned on them and played some guilt card? I wouldn't accuse them of the usual celeb motivation, trying to get a stalled career back on track, since palpably none of these have stalled.

The one aspect of celebrity really does gall me, is Oliver's own presumption that with his celeb mates, he can cure the ails of Britain's education system. He bores on about his own educational failings and how he's overcome that. In the show we still get his other agenda of healthy eating, one that divides opinion straight down class lines, but it seems to me a touch indulgent on his part. He's already done "Jamie's Kitchen" and "Fifteen", we don't really need to see his efforts at teaching as well as the other celebrities do we? Interestingly Oliver seems to have the least tolerance for the disruptive ways of the kids other than Starkey.

2) The kids are an eye opener on maybe the state of contemporary Britain and maybe they're not. How representative are they? I do find it interesting that they're drawn from both middle and working class families, from private and state educational backgrounds. Also was there some sort of selection process? The nature of TV programme production suggests these were not the first 20 kids to answer the call. They almost certainly would have been sifted from others, even if there was no formal audition process like with the talent shows. Programmes like this go for those they deem are likely to be the most televisual, the most charismatic, the most obnoxious, the most endearing etc etc. The group chemistry is not just between the kids, but so that all things are on offer to all viewers.

There's no getting away from the kids having what I take to be severe concentration and focus problems. It's been a while since I was at school, long predating mobile phones. So I can't understand why the kids are allowed in class with their phones, where they are forever afforded the opportunity to text rather than listen to the teachers. Same thing with giving them cameras, whether to do Rankin's homework, or just have a personal record & log of their experience. If they want to tune out, then I have no problem with them having laptops and just surfing the web for their own interests and knowledge as long as they do it in a way that doesn't impinge on those who do want to learn.

Having said that, there are some who definitely are engaging with the teachers. And what teachers like Campbell & Winston are showing them is that they actually already have a reasonable body of knowledge that just maybe needs arranging in their own minds and brought out coherently and cohesively. In Campbell's opening class on why politics? between them they knew about the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights Movement. But there again, only one pupil knew who Simon Callow was... There's celebrity and celebrity I guess. And how dreary that the majority cause they suggested to campaign on was cannabis. Henry, a self-proclaimed stoner and keen advocate of the legalise it campaign, has expressed an interest in being a fireman. A stoner fireman, yeah that'll work...

Danielle arrived on the show it seems to me, clear that she had been given a priceless second chance that she could not afford to pass up. Hence she was the only one to stick out the biosphere experience and good for her, she's profited by it with a trip to Arizona. A simple incentive ploy that will be interesting to see how the other kids respond to it. Jourdelle seems similarly well disposed to making the most of the opportunity. He may not have many grades to his name, but it's not clear what he's doing there as clearly he is very able. Like anything in life, those committed to putting the work in, those willing to listen and learn, will most likely prosper. Not much of a lesson to be learned there. A lot of the chatter on social network sites that comes from other school aged kids, seems every resentful at the chance these 20 kids have been given. A reward for failing and bad behaviour they proclaim. While there maybe a modicum of logic behind such an accusation, they are only really demonstrating a similar the world owes me everything attitude as the Dreamschool kids. The 'if I can't have it, why should they?' attitude. Plus while there is a chance for educational rehabilitation, the larger opportunity is maybe being on television itself. To show your redeeming characteristics as maybe a self-promotional video. haven't most of the Dreamschool kids landed quite plum apprenticeships or courses? The show is an audition after all, but not for education, but for entry level into adult life.

Jenny is one who interests me, having already got into two fights, but very much on the backfoot in both it seems to me. But the moment I took to be significant, was when she was the only one who refused to have her picture taken, for her self-esteem is even more shot to pieces than the rest of the class. Rankin's simple genius step was to put each kid at the centre of attention, with adult make-up artists fussing over them like celebs, being the focus of his lens, having their images blown up large and mounted on projection screens, all things to boost their battered esteem (whatever their sound and the fury is meant to project, they have all been labelled failures and have absorbed this to their deepest cores). Any time a kid is praised for their work, you see their face light up like a beacon. And there's nothing wrong with that at all, except to reflect on how they've arrived at this state of being perpetually rubbished. I hope Jenny can be raised from her personal despond and poor self-image in the remaining shows.

3) The audience. What do people expect? Some slag off the kids. Because they don't have experience of such a culture. Many professional teachers are predictably up in arms about the show humiliating them by getting these rank amateurs in to do their professional jobs. They shouldn't worry. While some of the celebs have shown a natural bent to inspire, what school could offer the teaching resources of a biosphere, a CSI scene, an Intensive Care unit, two Saatchi creatives etc etc? We are hardly comparing like with like. It's called Dream School remember? For a reason, we can only dream of our schools being so well resourced. I suspect that even the gauges measuring PH, water temperature and the like used under Winston's guidance, are beyond the reach of most schools.

Like most reality shows, this contains elements of car crash telly, where people love to watch it through fingers splayed over their face "covering" their eyes and then complain rigorously about the rank bad behaviour and decline of civilisation demonstrated thereof. It's simple, if you don't want to get riled up, don't watch! But people love to feel superior. I think there's a lot to be drawn from such a programme, though none of it is probably central to what the programme purports to be doing. It is a window into some of today's youth. It does suggest that with the right inspiration, even the toughest kids can be stimulated. It tells us about attention spans and the changing demands this makes on learning structures. It shows us some of the values kids have, particularly notions of respect and disrespect, how they regard adults and celebrities. Their dreams of being famous and rich, but without an idea of a career to realise this endpoint. But it does not provide any blueprint for educational reform.

Rather it demonstrates the political football that education always is. From Starkey's blanket views and presumptions about children, about learning and 'standards', through to the reaction of teachers as expressed via social network sites. Education always polarises opinion - it was the only issue that made my father vote in elections, for once I'd finished my education, he stopped voting - and this show allows anyone on any part of the spectrum of belief to restate their opinions backed up with 'evidence' from the show. No one will keep a sense of proportion about the programme as it panders to all of most strongly held beliefs about a very sensitive subject.

The school is a dream, the show contains some distorted elements of reality, but in the final reckoning, it's all just diverting grist for the entertainment mill.

1 comment:

Harry said...

I liked Jamie Oliver when he was the Naked Chef. He kind of lost me when he went into the reality biz and came over to straighten out fat American kids. Not an unworthy cause but the show seemed more than scripted, to the point of contrivance.

I haven't seen the show you are talking about but I'm interested after reading your thoughtful observations.

Well done!