Have you been watching Jamie’s Dream School? (9pm, Channel 4, Wednesdays) I have been avidly following it since the first episode, two weeks ago. Strangely enough, nobody else I have spoken to has seen any of it, but, as a teacher, I was glued to the set from the start.
It is about Jamie Oliver’s attempts to motivate and encourage back into learning, a group of twenty young people, average age seventeen, by providing them firstly with a building, made into temporary classrooms, but, more importantly, inspirational people – not necessarily teachers – in an attempt to inspire the students. The criteria for choosing this particular group was that none of them achieved the requisite five GCSEs, and neither did Jamie, of course, a fact which has spurred him on to help these students.
The team working with the students has so far included David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Alistair Darling, Robert Winston, Simon Callow and Alvin Hall. There is also a real headteacher, John Dabbro, in charge of the day to day running of the school.
My initial response to the programme was, quite literally, shock and horror. I have never witnessed behaviours such as these, and I felt profoundly depressed. There was no attempt by any of the students to exercise any form of self-discipline. Indeed, I doubt whether any of them know the meaning of the word, let alone be able to practise it. They talked incessantly amongst themselves while the teacher was speaking, they chewed gum, they insulted each other and they constantly used their mobile phones to send texts, completely ignoring the lesson which was going on around them.
Halfway through his first lesson, David Starkey walked out. He had insulted a boy by calling him fat, and described the whole class as ‘failures’. This did not go down too well with the students, and they responded in kind!
It is interesting to watch the way the experts handle the pupils, some of whom, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds. Their behaviour is enough to try the patience of a saint, and even the headteacher rounded on one girl last week, and excluded her. Her diatribe against him, in which she loudly and vociferously denounced him for what seemed like five minutes without pausing for breath, was unbelievable. Even her own mother, who initially took her part, was appalled when she watched the recording, and told her daughter off for her rudeness and dreadful behaviour.
This programme raises some interesting questions. How do children in school get to this stage? Why do secondary school pupils think that this is acceptable behaviour? David Starkey described them as ‘feral’ and many people would agree with him. When the camera focuses on a particular student, they actually come across as pleasant and sensible. It is just that, when they all get together in the ‘classroom’, the pack mentality cuts in, and the behaviour becomes obnoxious. Some students do, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds, but not all: one boy comes from a home where both parents are working professionals, but they have, as they admit, “given up.” The students have had a very rocky three or four weeks, and their behaviour has been appalling. They think nothing of getting up and walking out of the lesson if they feel like it, either because they are “bored” or because they want a smoke. They yell at each other across the room, carrying on their private squabbles, despite the fact that there is a lesson going on, and this week (23rd March), they reduced the very capable headteacher to tears, and almost caused him to quit.
However, there does seem to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, whose first class ended in utter chaos, tried a different approach, and it worked. He spoke to each student individually, explaining how he could not teach in an environment where he couldn’t make himself heard, and offering the students the chance to stay away from his lesson if they wished – only two did. When the others turned up, he made it very clear that he expected silence and attention, and he got it.
Another success was Alvin Hall, teaching maths. He, too, was able to engage them, and ended up with at least two of the students choosing to do extra maths in their own time.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes, in my opinion there is. Several, in fact.
Firstly, we need to impose discipline and structure within the classroom at a very early stage, because, as these students demonstrate, when the classroom situation descends into chaos, nobody learns anything, and pupils become disaffected.
There is a strong case for banning mobile ‘phones, which were constantly being used during lessons for texting (and chewing gum!).
Secondly, the most successful lessons so far have been the ones which relate to “real life”. For example, Alvin taught maths from the point of view of going shopping – how much things cost, giving change, etc. All the lessons which identified with the students’ lives were successful. However, by becoming more engaged in one subject, they became more engaged in another, and so, gradually, a new understanding of, and respect for, learning is growing.
I will have much more to say on this subject after this week’s programme.