March 2 sees the start of Jamie Oliver’s latest TV project, Dream School, in which he, I and other non-teachers try to teach 20 young people who have gone through the school system without success. The Times Weekend section today has a big piece on the Channel 4 programme, including interviews with actor Simon Callow, scientist Robert Winston and Cherie Blair, all giving their impressions of this televised social experiment. I have done an article for the package in the paper, which is here.
One day I will publish the file of silly TV ideas that I have gathered in the last few years. Here’s a taster. ‘We would like Alastair to go to the US where, using a combination of medication and cosmetic surgery, we can convert him from white to black. We would like him then to make a ground-breaking’ (they’re always ground-breaking) ‘documentary on racial prejudice in the deep south?’ I asked if I could go back to being white any time I fancied. ‘We think so’ was the far from reassuring reply.
‘Reality TV’ is a particular bugbear, though every now and then one gets through and I think it is worth a go. Dream School was one such. The invite came from Jamie Oliver, who made my life something of a nightmare when he forced school dinners up the political agenda at the 2005 election; he became a bit like the Queen Mum, and nobody could say that there were more important issues. But his heart has always struck me as being in the right place, and Dream School’s driving idea – take kids who have failed in school and see whether a group of passionate people can re-ignite an interest in education – seemed a good one.
** I was probably more nervous than the kids on Day 1 as I arrived at the former Mill Hill convent where the school was set up. The lack of training didn’t help. We were left to our own devices and my only real experience was as an assistant d’anglais in a school in Nice 33 years ago. PE teacher Daley Thompson didn’t help either. ‘Any advice?’ I asked. ‘Don’t turn up,’ he texted back from the sports field. ‘They’re a nightmare.’ They were certainly boisterous and challenging, but friendly, and intrigued by their new teachers. They had been given laptops, which eventually I confiscated for some of the lessons to stop the incessant Facebooking and Googling … ‘Sir, is it true you wrote pornography before you worked for Blair?’ Cue laughter, and a rise in Sir’s street cred.
I found I could get some of them quiet some of the time, but I couldn’t get all of them quiet all of the time. My own children were full of good advice. Speak clearly and set parameters. Never talk down to them. Find a way, early on, of praising someone and also of picking someone up on bad behaviour. They also advised picking out a couple of the more challenging kids and making an effort to get them on my side as part of the ‘you have to listen to learn’ squad.
** And so I found myself at Cheltenham Literature Festival, with Harlem and Nana Kwame. Harlem is a very feisty young woman the other teachers seemed to place among the most difficult. I thought she was great and she was very political even if she didn’t know it at first. Nana Kwame, a computer wizard with a passion for defending youth services as a way of keeping kids out of trouble, comes from a tough background but could see Dream School was going to give him opportunities he needed to seize. The trip was a prize for coming top in an ‘election’ we had held in Lesson 2 to pick the best public speaker. Harlem had won fairly easily with a passionate defence of her mum’s rights to benefits.
Cheltenham was like another world for them. A middle class event full of middle class readers, and middle-class I was being interviewed on stage by middle-class Libby Purves. At one point I asked Harlem, sitting in the front row, to make the speech she had delivered at Dream School. It came out a bit different. She made it sound like there would be civil war if her mum’s benefits were withdrawn. ‘I felt so nervous’ she said afterwards. ‘But I felt great too.’ Meanwhile we bumped into Alistair Darling or ‘the one with the eyebrows’ as most of the kids knew him. ‘Sir,’ asked Nana Kwame ‘are you the one who messed up the economy then?’ Alistair gave a good calm account of himself as usual.
** I used Lesson 1 to try to show that politics mattered, was central to their lives and that they were more political than they might realise. When I asked them to sum up politics in one word, the most polite word was ‘boring.’ None knew who George Osborne was. Four were aware of Nick Clegg. All of them were able to recognise Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair from photos. All but two recognised David Cameron and Gordon Brown. None recognised John Major, and most had never heard of him. They all recognised Katie Price, Simon Cowell, Jay-Z and – there’s hope yet – Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet despite their stated disinterest, they sat fairly rapt when I showed them short films on how women fought for the vote, how Labour legislated on gay rights, how Nelson Mandela led the fight against apartheid, and how the civil rights movement in the US delivered real and lasting change. Once they saw the link with ‘boring’ politics, they came up with all manner of political ideas of their own, some of which we later turned into slogans and posters with the help of my old friends at Saatchis.
They were at their quietest when I played them tapes of speeches by Martin Luther King, JFK, Barack Obama and other great orators. But when I played them Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’, they were off; chatting, messing around, their attention gone. ‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘If it was not for this man we’d be sitting here in Lederhosen. Show respect.’ ‘Sorry sir,’ said Carl. ‘But we can’t understand a word he says.’
** The staff room threw up some interesting encounters and with cameras pretty much everywhere there was no escape. Cherie Blair and I swapped notes after she had come in to teach law and human rights, and we had our first proper chat in ages. When we were interrupted by a couple of the boys, she warned them not to go down the ‘Alpha Male’ route she clearly thought I trod. She and Nana Kwame had had a bit of an up and downer. Former poet laureate Andrew Motion seemed to be finding the behavioural issues a real drag. Simon Callow thought one or two had acting talent. Rankin found a couple of natural photographers. Historian David Starkey had a ‘very rough ride’ (source – all the kids and all the crew) at his first outing. Alas it seems he had not had the ‘don’t talk down’ strictures that I had received, and they took to it badly, though by the end of the course he seemed to be doing better. Meanwhile Mary Beard was wondering if she could teach at all. Given she is one of the world’s leading classicists her students at Cambridge University doubtless hang on her every word. At Dream School, where she tried to interest them in Latin, their attention was less easily held. ‘It has forced me to think whether I can actually teach at all,’ she confided.
** Only once did I feel I was losing control of the class. That was in Lesson 4 when Angie, who till then had been ok, seemed to be having the mother of all strops. I had been operating a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ discipline policy and as she neared the third strike she decided to walk before she was pushed. I am hoping that her tantrum leads to a Daily Mail column. She can be billed as ‘the girl who called Alastair Campbell a fucking prick, and lived to tell the tale’.
** Finally, I have always been a fan of teachers, feeling the vast bulk do a good job in often difficult circumstances. My respect is even greater now. I have no idea if I made a difference to this challenging bunch of young people. Several of them were kind enough to say I did. Some have stayed in touch, mainly via twitter. And one or two I fully expect to see one day in the not too distant future, causing trouble for Cameron and Clegg.