Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Bizarro World of Education: Jamie's Dream School is BACK!

'Hoorah! ONSTED!'
'This is the stewardess speaking: does anyone know how to fly a plane?'

Oh boy, oh boy, oh BOY, am I happy- and for all the wrong reasons. I was going to write about so many things today, but now, now there's only one game in town, and it is righteous: the news that Jamie's Dream School, my all time favourite piece of pedagogic TV, is back in the news- and for all the wrong reasons. It's like Christmas for edusphere bloggers like myself, and this time they've served up a turkey so large you could saddle it and ride it through Admiralty Arch.

The House of Commons Education Select Committee 'regularly meets with representatives from across the education sector, including students, parents, teachers, social workers, inspectors and academics', or so its website says. And who, in its infinite wisdom has it decided to consult on the realities of mainstream education, and the challenges facing pupils, teachers and educators? Why, the Dons and Alumni of TV's Dream School of Course! Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. I am absolutely hugging myself with joy, and not simply because it gives me a chance to return to my favourite fictional subject since Mad Men series V got put on ice.

This is almost as good as  when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize. Can you imagine the thinking that inspired this glorious piece of consultation? Education is famously in a permanent state of contention; manhandled and pawed at by every successive administration until it feels soiled and unchaste as a penny-dreadful heroine-in-distress; its aims and successes are never settled. It remains permanently open to speculation and endless adjustment. I've written before about the enormous intellectual and professional cavity that exists in education; that because hard science fails to rigorously establish the efficacy of one system over another, and because education itself is subject to redefinition so easily, that any number of oleaginous hoover-salesmen can bound down from the mountain top and claim the magic beans they have in their pocket are actually a beanstalk to academic success. There aren't enough frying pans for the violence I would do to this clan.


But I had no idea that the cavity was so cavernous that you could reasonably assemble the cast of Gandhi inside it. Has the chair forgotten that Jamie's Dream School, fabulous in so many ways as it was, was a school of twenty? That they were all post school age (i.e. adults, not school children any more)? That none of the teachers were qualified to teach? So: no students and no teachers. This is a school?

That the Head Master inexplicably had no powers of sanction other than, you know, sad eyes and the 'I'm worried that we're failing you,' talk? That its sponsor was the fantastic but essentially, 'nothing to do with education' Jamie Oliver? That the curriculum was a Bizarro World impersonation of what they would study? That they were free to come and go as they pleased? That all the collective expertise of the 'teachers'- which, focused on a single spot could have bored a hole through the Earth's Crust- was essentially as useful as an ashtray on a hang glider?


This wasn't a school. This was a circus of optimism, ambition and benevolence. Who will they ask next? Mr Chips? The cast of Waterloo Road? F*ck me, don't give them any ideas.


The cast of TOWEI: not invited to the committee. Yet.
Of course, this isn't to say that the people involved have nothing credible to say- Bad Boy D'Abbs is the respected Head of the New Rush Hall group- he's got as valid an opinion as many, and more than some; Alvin Hall, David Starkey and Lord Winston and Mary Beard are no idiots (the mass of their combined education threatens to create a wormhole in Time and Space). And Lord Jazzy of B seems like a good and wise man. But in the same way that Jamie's Dream School (the series) was far more successful as a mirror from which educational matters could be usefully teased and discussed (*gives a small girlish cough and winks*), the lessons to be learned from the school itself as an institution could be gleaned from one day in any mainstream comprehensive. The challenges that that Andrew Motion and Simon Callow faced in their lesson laboratories are the same ones that every teacher in the UK (and I imagine beyond) face on a daily basis. If you call a building, twenty kids and a dozen or so untrained teachers in the same place with TV cameras a 'brave experiment in education', then  I suppose it was.

But it wasn't, it just wasn't. It was a well meant attempt to solve the challenges of education that teachers have faced for thousands of years: how do you switch the kids on (answer: reboot switch under the scalp, like Westworld)? How do you maintain order (clue: create it) and so on. Plato, Avicenna, even Maria bleedin' Montessori, have all had a pop at these questions before. The idea that ambition and warmth and subject expertise were the sole requirements for starting a school was touching, but wrong. It presumes that anyone can have a crack at it. How hard can it be? The school was based on the premise that teaching doesn't require professional teachers- an axiom that, apparently the Education Select Committee shares.


And of course, it will surprise no one to hear that the first forty five minutes of the hearing will see selected students from the Dream school giving evidence to the Committee. Joy unlimited! That alone is worth my license fee for 2011, and on Tuesday the 21st of June, there's only one thing my BT box will be set to- the Big Ticket Box Office of the Dream School Kids from Fame. I rejoice, and the world of teaching rejoices. Please, God, let Harlem return to the spotlight; if the BBC has any sense, they'll revoke their clause prohibiting commercial broadcasting and turn it into a pay-per-view. I have my credit card ready.

'Amongst the issues the Committee will explore are behaviour and discipline (a recurring theme in the series), curriculum and qualifications (including the importance of creative and practical learning), and teacher training and autonomy (in light of the Government’s Free Schools and Academies programmes).'

''Jamie's Dream Hospital, hmmm...''
And what, I wonder, will be the input from our celebrity panel? Alvin Hall achieved some success by linking maths to their self interest; Mary Beard managed to get them feeling a bit sorry for her; Winston surprised them with Trumpian resources; Starkey took on Connor in what I thought was going to be the world's weirdest rap battle. They all had some some success, a lot of failure, and all looked like they'd aged a decade through the experience. Hall successfully summed the pupils up as mostly childish and anti-entrepreneurial- full of desire but little ambition or strategy. They should invite Jamie's Dinner Lady, who memorably chided him, saying, 'You've created a beautiful world here for them, but it doesn't exist.' Here is wisdom.

The students' input should be interesting. But then, student voice is terribly fashionable, isn't it? Yes, that's what education has been missing for centuries- the opinions of children. These students were given gratis education for well over a decade, and many of them blew it for all the usual reasons- misbehaviour, boredom and egotism. I despair when I see the flower of our youth offered the wisdom of centuries for free, and turn their noses up at it. It's sad, and as teachers we work as hard as we can to see that it happens as rarely as possible. But there comes a point when people have to be held responsible for their own educations, when we can no longer say, 'We've let them down'. There comes a point when we all- all of us- have to say, 'I let myself down. No one else.' The danger is, of course, that these students will be unable to realise that, for precisely the same reason that they gave school the bum's rush in the first place- they can't see how valuable it can be, and they can't see that the world won't bend over backwards to kiss their arses. Why should it?

One of Jamie's themes was that if only the more creative subjects were encouraged, then many children would engage with school in a personal way. And there is truth in this- the thing is, though, that schools already do offer these subjects. As I mentioned in a recent post reply, the last time I checked, we had Music, Art, Design, Textiles, Expressive Arts, English, and that doesn't even begin to include the enormous levels of creativity and artistry hard wired into the Humanities subjects like RS and Sociology, where interpretation and interaction with the content is vital to success. So where is this enormous deficit in creative and practical learning? It doesn't exist. Some kids blow these subjects off too, just as surely as they flip the bird to Trigonometry and Boyle's Law.

The main reason why some kids don't succeed in school is because they choose not to work and learn. They choose, not life, but something else. They choose to do as they please. Teachers and parents need to help them learn the character assets of self restraint and dedication, but there is only so far that a teacher can make this happen, even a great one. The earlier they learn this the better. If they don't learn it at an early age, then the gap between their possible learning and their actual learning gets wider and wider, until by the time we get them in secondary, some of them have been habituated into patterns of self-interest and whimsy, seemingly unable to grasp that the world exists as anything other than a nuisance, or as a conduit to their gratification. Kids of two see the world as an enormous solipsistic playground. By the time they hit GCSEs, you're kind of hoping they've grown out of that. Some don't.

But there may be Solomonic gems from them yet. I often meet kids on the street (because that's how I roll) who have left school and confess that they mucked about too much, and wish they had done otherwise. It gives me no pleasure to hear this- I'd rather they applied themselves at the time it was most efficient- but at least they have grown that much, and perhaps they can take that lesson into the next phase of their lives. God knows, enough people mature at different rates and find their paths in their twenties or later. Life isn't over until the flowers hit the lid.

Jamie's Dream School. Episode 8. Tuesday 21st June, 10:00am. The Parliament Channel. My blog: possibly that night, depending on whether I can calm down enough.

Sympathy for the Devil

Poor old AC Grayling. While it might seem difficult to feel sorrow for the world famous, internationally renowned philosopher (poor him), the poor old pedgogue has been getting such a kicking this week that laboratory Beagles chipped in and sent him a card. His crime appears to be- and I am taking this on advice- that he had the temerity to say that he, and a Brains Trust of Olympian Alpha Eggheads have decided to set up the New Humanities College, in association with the University of London, issuing degrees.

'Hitchens, you rotter! This was YOUR idea!'
The BASTARD.

To be honest, I'm vaguely at a loss as to see what's actually so criminally wrong. I even read Terry Eagleton's sermon and everything. I scanned Twitter (rapidly becoming my go-to source of veracity, even more than Wikipedia and tea leaves). Were I to encourage my neighbour's elderly Labrador to take a poop in an empty cereal box, garnish it with Dolly Mixture, and advertise it on eBay for a fiver, whose business is it other than mine (and presumably, my by-now uncomfortable neighbour)? Is he hanging around the gates of the local primary school, dangling packets of black heroine? Has he recommended, as one immaculate Kuwaiti political candidate did this week, that conquered foreign nationals be legitimately used as sex slaves? Did he vote for Jean Martyn in the BGT finals?

No, he didn't. He's created a University (I believe that the very posh ones get called colleges again, in the same way that surgeons drop the doctor and chest-bump to Mr again)- well a virtual one at least. And the big fuss, it seems is that he's charging a kidney and a mortgage for it. So what? Who's business is that? If someone wants to do it, it's no worse or better than the numerous 'English Language' colleges that used to dot the Bayswater road. I believe that setting up commercial training institutions is now common practise. Where's the harm if Gray-lo wants to bum a pension from the parents of wealthy Brainiacs? Who does it hurt? If it does well, congratulations. If it goes nipples-up, then chalk one up to bad management. Never trust a philosopher with money- they'll only remind you that value is an abstract, relative concept with no intrinsic substance. Then they'll beg a fag off you because they're skint.

Have I missed something? Eagleton apears to be hopping up and down and I can't quite see why- every one of is arguments is boiling with insubstantiality.

'If a system of US-type private liberal arts colleges like this one gains ground in Britain, the result will be to relegate an already impoverished state university system to second-class status.'  

If the streets were made of trifle, we'd all be wearing wellies. If we all saved up, we could buy the world a coke. If, if, if. Let the rich send their children to Welsh mines, Gretna Green or wherever they want. How on earth does it concern anyone else how they choose to educate their- adult-, remember- children? The state can provide for the VAST majority who can't afford the Mega-fees of the NCH and its ilk.

Rich people are taxed, I believe. Those taxes help pay for state Universities, schools, and everything else. The rest of their money is theirs to do with as their delicate fancy possesses them. A C Grayling has slogged away in the Logic Mines all his life. Academia is an occupation rich in A-Team magnificence, light in remuneration. Who is to stand between this man and his high end Evening School? How will it even knock a pebble from the edifice of state tertiary education? 

Trying to explain himself at the recent talk in Foyles, he was greeted with smoke bombs, preventing him from speaking. Who on Earth do these people think they are defending?  Take your smoke bombs, and your righteous, infantile fury and let them detonate in every fee paying educational institution in every high street in every borough, from home tutor centres to adult education classes. Take your placards and your fury to every private school and independent boarder in the country. And ask yourself, Who are we fighting for? It's enough to make poor ACG think the barbarians are back.

And it's Two weeks until the Sunday Times Festival Of Education, where both D'Abbs and ACG will be speaking. If anyone gets a smoke bomb out they'll feel the toe of my shoe.

3 comments:

  1. Oh God can you even believe that they are consulting Jamie and his motley crue over this? Ridiculousness! Honestly, I can't even express myself properly. I can't wait to find out what enlightened information they get from them.

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  2. Don't know whether to laugh or cry... but I'll be watching!

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  3. Eagleton can only ever ride his big Marxist bull through the chinashop.
    It's the cut of his gib.

    Sadly this time (probably due to over zealous sub-editing) his argument falls somewhat flat.

    To me that article fails to assert any reasonably backed line of discourse other than "rich people = bad".

    As for the Education Select Committee.
    I have no words.

    Just a few tears and the shaking of my disbelieving head.

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