Saturday, 9 April 2011

Jamie's Dream School 6: Not everyone gets to fly the plane.

'I'm really worried about my portfolio
I wonder if the program makers were aware that this week's episode ('No Child Left Behind') was named after the 2001 Act of Congress that required all states to provide standardised tests if they wanted to qualify for federal funding. As Charles Murray put it, 'The law of the land is that every child is to be above average.' If they were, then they have a strange way of matching title to content; this week we saw the continuation of the project's commitment to reinventing school to re-engage twenty Prima Donnas and Desperados through a combination of no perceivable rules, bottomless resources, celebrity supply teachers and a legitimised smoker's corner (hardly makes it worth bothering with then, doesn't it? Don't worry, they still find the energy to 'engage' with their Benson and Hedges).

This week saw the abyss of reality start to peek through the blinds, like dawn rising in Transylvania, and even Jamie acknowledged he was worried about what was going to happen to them after Dream School threw its mortar board in the air. It's episode 6, and Jamie's been thinking.

'I'm worried that the basic problem is behaviour.'

Nora brings it.
And the Prodigal Son comes home. After watching his twenty Charlies huff and mince and scowl at the privation of luxury, celebrity, personalised education for the past month, you'll have to forgive me for pointing out that this gun has been smoking since the minute Harlem first opened her gob to say something undoubtedly angry and self-justifying. ('Harlem, could you pass me the salt?' 'No way, I'll fuckin' lay you out right here, salt, fuck you salt, the FUCK you sayin' salt shit to me for I'll lay you out I fuckin' will...'). Of course it's behaviour that's the key problem here. Not their particular point on the spectrum of dysfuntionality, not the deprivation or the construction of their families, not the way they're being taught, not whether the teacher 'gets them' or 'understands them,' not whether their needs are being met, or the lessons are fun enough, or long enough, or short enough, or taught in a field, in a biosphere, in the Globe or at the top of Pen Y Fan by someone who 'really, really believes in them.'

None of that matters, none of it is essential- in fact in the wrong proportions, some of it is actually harmful. No, the single biggest axiom of student success is how they behave in the room. If they won't sit reasonably still, listen reasonably well and follow reasonable instructions, then you have nothing; nothing at all. Call it manners, call it social skills, call it anything you want- that's the first, the last, the everything of being able to teach students. And every teacher realises it the first time they walk into a room of kids who, believe it or not, would prefer not to do calculus or read The Grapes of Wrath.

Some try to sidestep this problem by claiming that the structure of the classroom and schools themselves cause this bad behaviour- that if children were only allowed to guide their own education then their natural curiosity and love of learning would lead them to academic excellence. This is, of course, mentalism of the highest order, brought to you by such goons as the American theorist John Dewey, in what I can only assume was some kind of belated revenge for the War of Independence.

It's behaviour.Crack that, and you have a chance. Crack it not, and it'll crack you.

Bring on the Dinner Ladies

So what does Jamie do after this epiphany? After all, his Head Master seems to be allergic to issuing sanctions (I'd like to point out that Harlem got two days at home for the accumulation of aggression and intimidation she wages each week. That'll teach her), so where do we go from here? Of course, there's only one thing for it- get a dinner lady to teach them cooking. Brilliant. And not just any old dinner lady, Nora , last seen scowling in Jamie's School Dinners series. (Incidentally I love how she was introduced at first as just 'Nora', indicating a level of familiarity and celebrity enjoyed only by Madonna, Squiggle and Bianca from Eastenders. Even Lady Gaga has a title).

Of course, the presence of a middle aged woman with an accent shouting at them about how untidy they were didn't exactly transform anyone's lives. And why should it? I'm sure she's a fine, competent woman, but at the risk of repeating myself throughout my reviews (I prefer to call it a theme) she's not a trained teacher. None of them are. Every week we have a non-teaching Assistant Head, a non teaching, teaching staff, all scratching their heads and saying, 'Golly, they seem to be mucking about.' You don't bloody say.

Do people think that teachers just turn up, juice up the Interactive Whiteboard, and play DVDs until the bell rings? It appears that this is, indeed, how our profession is perceived, and the blame can probably be laid at a number of doors- successive education ministries run by people who have never actually been involved in education in any meaningful way, a decline in adult authority, a growing suspicion that adult authority (upon which the teacher's role rests) is somehow coercive and evil. So I feel the need to get up from the sofa, waive my tiny fist and shout at the telly, 'We're teachers! It's a job! We deal with this kind of thing all the time!' It amazes me how people routinely have the balls to preach from the mountain top about anything in education, from curriculum to teaching styles, without any experience in the field at all, apart from having once been a student themselves. Teaching is a skill, a craft, and a field; it may surprise some people, but we have actually dealt with rudeness, apathy, aggression and disruption before. Seriously, we have.

And they're prepared to do so because everyone thinks it's a piece of piss. Really, they must do, because you don't get many people phoning up NASA and saying, 'Nah, mate, you want to differentiate your electron resonance a bit more if you want to find a super particle. Long wave variable interference? On a Monday? You're 'avin a laugh!' If you want your boiler fixed, call a plumber. Want somebody taught? Call a _______ (I'll let you fill that bit in, in an exciting new teaching style designed to exploit your curiosity, activate your left hemisphere and develop your emotional literacy).

I'm your Personal teacher: Reach out and touch me

Next week's Head of Maths.
Anyway. The other theme (as the title suggests) is 'reaching' the students who haven't 'engaged' yet. I don't know what all this 'reaching' fuss is- they're right there, on camera, having fags, sulking, swearing whenever they can't think of anything else to say, and describing everything as 'boring'. See? I could reach them in a second. Georgia and Rikki exemplify this charming position I can only describe as amoebic. Rikki appears to have a bit of a breakthrough (and I use that term very loosely, in a way that is only visible through an electron microscope) later on when he actually manages to write two hundred words for his mission statement (which bizarrely enough isn't actually a mission statement, but a rather uninspiring explanation to future employers that his GCSEs are a bit rubbish. But, small victories, eh, Daley?)

Georgia (or at least her TV edit) starts off apathetic and manages to shred every drop of viewer sympathy as she goes along by her petulant, casual egocentrism; with two days to go, she bugs her biddable mother to take her home, and plants her ass in the family car. She won't budge, and refuses to come out. (I should point out that she's already had her confrontation with D'Abbs- 'I don't have time to deal with this, Georgia,' he said, channelling John Rambo and Oliver Cromwell, before walking away. That'll teach her).

'I want to be happy, and if I stay there, I won't be happy. I'm going to stay in this car until you take me home and you can have that on your conscience. Well fucking done.'

This, to her mother.
While she has a fag.
In the car.

The words National and Service sprang to mind, unbidden. So Mum takes her home, and Georgia drops off the radar, hopefully forever, unless she reincarnates as some kind of avatar of apathy and peevishness.

Jamie receives the (suspiciously and conveniently filmed) news from Alastair Campbell that the kids can come to 10 Downing Street to meet D-Cam (is this a last minute attempt to apply sanctions? Sorry), but because this is vaguely the real world, he says that he won't take any that are going to embarrass him. I like that- the understanding that inside the bubble biosphere of the Dream School, the kids can have an infinite number of chances, but step one millimetre outside onto the pavement and you're lucky enough to get one chance, let alone a fistful, and blowing an opportunity leaves you with nothing but regret, not a chat with D'Abbs and a sad face from Jamie. Speaking of whom, Basher D'Abbs comments to Jamie, 'This is what we dreamed about...that we need to make some changes in our education system...and this is our best opportunity.'

I don't know what changes he's talking about, but if it involves schools with no consequences, no sanctions or punishments, based entirely on rewards and praise and forgiveness, where pupils can do as they like in the hope that one or two of them will descend from their marble roosts and allow themselves to be 'reached', then I can only hope that David Cameron has his Bullshit Sunglasses on the day they come for Tiffin.

No matter how hard you might want to.
After the Battle of Nora's Kitchen, Jamie sounds glum. 'My first get tough measure hasn't worked,' he says, as I rub my eyes and wonder if I missed it. And Nora provides some of the best lines of the program:

'They think someone owes them something. You've brought them into a lovely world and it don't exist.'

She's a wise one, that Nora- she's the first one to express the plain, unvarnished truth; that it isn't school that's failed these kids. For a variety of reasons, they've failed school. That doesn't make them write-offs, or untouchables, or chaff, or vermin. It makes them human. And humans make mistakes and get on with it. Some of them have. Many of them haven't, and have blown Dream School in exactly the same way they did Real School. Jamie acknowledges this when he admits to them that he sees 'patterns' in their behaviour that holds them back. Yes, it's called character. How many chances does someone get before we admit that it isn't more chances that some people need; it's the ability to reflect on what failure means, and what they're going to do about it.

The new celebrity teacher this week is David Templeman Adams, the businessman and explorer (it says here) who takes them off to do a bit of climbing through South Wales. They display the reluctance of condemned men on their way to the gallows, and Georgia decided it was all shit and pointless before she took a step. Mind you, that appears to be her default opinion for anything unexperienced, so I imagine it's a pretty crowded category of event for her.

DTA drags them up the hill, and hearteningly enough, they like it when they get to the top. The point of this jolly is to teach them the value of something that takes effort to achieve, which is fair enough, but it takes more than a weekend in Wales to drill that kind of message home- it requires living it, reflecting upon it, and assimilating it into your attitude. Still, it's worth a try. And I must say, having helped run Duke of Edinburgh camping expeditions for a few years, it's always worth a chuckle when you see kids packing for a walk up the Welsh mountains with hair straighteners and two-litre bottles of Pepsi. Wait until their Skittles run out.

Angelique (who apparently covets Harlem's tiara for unconcealed rage and venom) behaves herself on the trip, leading Jamie to say, 'This is the Angelique we want to see- Jekyll, not Hyde'. But that's the problem- these aren't two people; these are two parts of an integrated whole. We don't scold 'bad' Angelique and praise the good one- and we certainly can't separate the behaviour from the person. Actions flow from character; they are integral to each other.

'I got a bigger mention here than on the box.'
Poor old Michael Vaughan; Captain of the England Cricket Team for several years, and all he gets is ten seconds of telly time at the Dream School. Presumably nobody stormed out of his lessons or told him to f*ck off.

More successful, of course, is Cherie Booth Blair (nee Sauron) who gets another bite of the cherry this week. Possibly because her voice is hoarse (presumably from swallowing whole children that got lost in the Enchanted Woods, or gargling holy water), she reverts to the lazy teacher standby of 'having a debate' (we've all done it. Well. Maybe not in maths). Only, this being dream school, the guest speaker isn't just any old rentagob from the local council. No, it's John, who apparently took an axe to his landlady and spent time in the Big House for his trouble. How absolutely charming.

What makes John even more interesting is that he's a man with a mission now. Not for him the mundane life of a serial axe murderer, oh no. Now he campaigns for prisoner's rights, and Cherie's brought him in to host a discussion on lag voting ('John went to prison for manslaughter, and when he was there he didn't think it was right that he was denied the vote,' said Cherie, apparently without irony. Poor John. Life is so unfair in prison, isn't it?).

The debate ended with Cherie hurriedly summing up a slim majority against Prisoner Voting Rights. 'So this is an issue that doesn't have a right or wrong answer,'  she said. Which is the kind of soft-headed, wishy washy thinking that makes people distrust lawyers and all vile creatures generally. No right answer, is there? How terribly, fashionably post modern. It's all a matter of opinion, isn't it? A bit like the idea that anyone can teach, and subject content isn't as important as learning emotional skills and such- it's all a matter of opinion, isn't it? I shudder at such moral and physical relativism, and education shudders.

We finished the week with a nice cup of tea and all the parents. Angelique blew a gasket at Alastair Campbell, who took it in his stride and said, 'No skin off my scales; off you pop,' or words to that effect. You have to hand it to him; he may have been partially instrumental in genocide, but he'd make a terrific classroom teacher. And I'm serious about that. Gobby little shrews like Angelique and Harlem don't even register on his radar.


'One-legged arse kickers...hmm..'
It's nearly the end of the Dream for the kids. The experiment lurches from comedy to comedy, but I (unlike many people blogging, tweeting and writing in the edusphere) still hold Mr Oliver in high esteem. It's brilliant that he's got so many people talking about these issues. But as he himself admits 'School is about engaging children- ALL children- and there are still children slipping between the gaps in MY school.' That's him, slowly realising that ambition, compassion and enthusiasm aren't enough to get everyone learning if they really don't want to. 

God knows what I'll blog about when it finishes.

Quotes of the week:


'My head feels totally clear- you don't think about anything.' Emma, at the top of Pen-Y Fan, not realising that you don't have to climb 2000 metres in order to achieve that state of bliss, not at Jamie's Dream School.


'I'm not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed.' Angelique, racing up my charts.

11 comments:

  1. "Anyway. The other theme (as the title suggests) is 'reaching' the students who haven't 'engaged' yet."

    Talk of reaching the kids always makes me think of this:

    http://www.southparkstudios.co.uk/clips/sp_vid_165712/

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  2. Once again, thanks for articulating my incoherent rage at this programme so lucidly - reading these posts is very therapeutic! I think, though, that Georgia's mum deserves more of a mention in dispatches. Her rationale for taking Georgia away was, more or less, 'She's my daughter and I love her'. She just left it unsaid that loving someone means awlays doing exactly what they want you to do, even if it's stupid, but I guess that's what she thinks.

    And it's just a passing thought, but why didn't they make the programme with younger pupils, given the weight that's attached to early intervention?

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  3. I've stopped watching the programme, but I've been loving these blogs about it. Hilarious stuff - thanks.

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  4. 'Talk of reaching the kids always makes me think of this'

    Southpark is wise, as usual. Just don't incorporate 'The Aristocrats Cartman' into any lesson you do on emotional intelligence.

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  5. 'And it's just a passing thought, but why didn't they make the programme with younger pupils, given the weight that's attached to early intervention?'

    Because this program was presumably pitched by a consortium of people who have no interest in working out how teaching actually happens, only attempting to prove the apparently accepted maxim that all children need is enthusiasm and someone believing in them. Daniel Willingham has written an excellent book which discusses this beautiful but naive belief.

    http://www.amazon.com/Why-Dont-Students-Like-School/dp/0470279303

    Thanks for the comment

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  6. Thanks, MrNDaniels. I watch it so that you don't have to.

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  7. I enjoyed this so much I may even watch the program. Now see what you've done!

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  8. Good Lord, man, don't do anything drastic!

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  9. Brilliant post! Thanks for the book like above...will stick on my reading list.

    I do love this blog..

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  10. I have really enjoyed your blog .... very insightful and funny as well , been a pleasure to read. Also very touching personally for me as i am Danielle's mum

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  11. In that case, I'm glad I was so positive about her :) She was an example to others, and please pass on my best wishes- hope the Arizona biosphere suits her! And thanks for the comment.

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