Poor Jamie Oliver. He’s dedicated his life to trying to help us working class people live better lives—but it’s like throwing pearls before swine.
This seems to be the message of his latest project, Jamie’s Dream School, which began on Channel 4 last night.
The starting point is fair enough—he says he didn’t get much out of school and wants things to be different for others. But it’s only 15 minutes into the programme when he calls the students “feral”.
Jamie’s Dream School brings together “celebrities” to teach a group of young people who have left school. At least two of them say they have been in pupil referral units—schools that teach excluded children.
Initially the students are prepared to give Oliver’s experiment a go.
One says his school is good because it “isn’t like school”. But his optimism doesn’t last long because in the next few minutes right wing historian David Starkey calls him “fat”—uniting the entire class against him.
This follows Starkey’s wonderfully awful opening line to his class: “You are all here because you have failed”.
He goes on to bemoan the fact that no one’s listening to him and no one respects him—although as one student rightly complains, “Teachers automatically expect you to respect them without respecting you back.”
Starkey eventually walks out of the class—and Oliver sides with him. “It’s going to be quite a challenge turning these kids around,” he remarks, just before the adverts, which funnily enough begin with an ad for Jamie Oliver-sponsored Sainsbury's school equipment vouchers.
A handful of good points emerge during the programme. Rolf Harris teaches an art class and points out that if he had half the number of students he could give them more attention.
He’s sympathetic to the students who aren’t confident about art and so give up, because he says he was unable to spend any time helping them.
There is one mention of the difference that funding makes to schools. And there are times when the students get to talk about how they see the world. One young woman describes her time at school as being told off, sent out of the room and put in the corner.
“How can I be 16 and still facing the wall?” she asks.
Jamie’s Dream School certainly shows that teaching isn’t easy. But it puts the blame squarely on the students. “Sometimes, some of you are your own worst enemy,” Oliver tells them. He despairs that they aren’t more grateful for his help, saying they are “wasting the opportunity” of his dream school.
The programme doesn’t look seriously at why people are alienated from school. There’s no mention of the poverty, racism and unemployment that can lead young people to see school as irrelevant.
There’s also no mention of all the people who desperately want an education but are denied one because the Tories are cutting education funding.
Oliver says he wants these people to be “inspired” to go on to full time education. But the main problem isn’t lack of inspiration—it’s lack of places.
The Tories are waging war on education, whether it’s abolishing Education Maintenance Allowance, privatising schools by pushing so-called free schools and academies or raising tuition fees.
Oliver’s position fits in with the Tory ideology that individuals setting up their own schools is the way forward—but what we’ll end up with is a fragmented education system run by unaccountable groups.
Jamie’s Dream School ends up blaming students for their own failings. It’s no wonder they never get anywhere because they’re not interested and won’t make the effort.
It’s bad—but there may be worse to come.
Next week Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell will try to “wake up their political passions”. You have been warned.