Listening to young people – or not – at Jamie’s Dream School
By Sarah Gillinson
Before I join the clamour of commentators discussing Jamie Oliver’s latest project I should say that I am no education expert. But then neither is Jamie, and the programme made me think hard, so here goes.
First up, I have huge respect for Jamie. The way he has used his talent, skills and passion through the Fifteen Foundation to create opportunities for young people who are fired up by food – but disillusioned and disengaged from formal education – is powerful and inspiring. And his dogged campaign on school meals has helped to shift their focus solely from ‘cheap’ to ‘nutritious’, whilst spawning a whole raft of other celebrity campaigns around healthy eating and food sourcing. Brilliant.
But even before I watched episode one, Jamie’s Dream School seemed like a pretty big stretch. Home economics gets a look in but this programme is not about food. It is attempting to challenge our whole model of curriculum and teaching. As Jamie stresses at numerous points, he has got plenty of personal experience about what didn’t work for him – but not so much on the best alternatives.
The result threw up two glaring insights for me. One about what it takes to work successfully with smart, energetic young people who have been switched off and undermined by their experiences of school. The other about what high profile, disruptive and challenging new models, especially those in a celebrity campaign, can and should do – and what they cannot and should not.
Insight number one about working successfully with young people reared its head over and over again: unless you are connecting personally and respectfully with every young person and what inherently motivates them, you’re done for. I recognise that this is hardly a new revelation. It was one of the first things that one of the young men on the programme told Jamie – he was switched off by teachers who talked down to him like he was small, unimportant and didn’t care about what he thought. Organisations like Fairbridge who work successfully with disadvantaged young people agree – they consistently emphasise the importance of this personal connection and mutual respect in building confidence and motivation.
This was brought home by what I thought was one of the most powerful moments of the programme. Jamie could see that things were going in the wrong direction – both students and teachers were angry and defensive after some difficult lessons – and he used an assembly to try and set things right. He asked everyone in the room to share with the others why they were here and how they felt about the experience. The room was quiet. Everyone listened. There were some seriously moving statements about how school had been boring, undermining and never offered any positive affirmation of who they are. How some of the experiences they were having at Dream School felt like the antithesis of that. Fun, respectful, active, affirming. That mutual respect was clearly the foundation of their engagement. Where it existed – at Ellen Macarthur’s post-sailing dinner or Jamie’s assembly – young people were present and focused. David Starkey’s much-discussed history lesson proved the opposite.
I’m not suggesting that mutual respect is the only ingredient to effective learning. Interest, motivation and purpose have pretty important roles to play too. And again, Dream School seems to be hit and miss here. Jamie’s formula seems to be brilliant, charismatic expert + space to be creative = engaged learners. One look at the fabulous Simon Callow’s Shakespeare lessons dispelled that myth pretty quickly – after the class realised that Shakespeare didn’t come from the Stratford they knew, chat and in-fighting ruled again.
Again, not a massive surprise that successful inspiration was proven to lie at the intersection of students’ existing interests and some objectively high quality content and coaching. Rolf Harris got some pretty committed engagement in his art class (if some difficult moments) from a young graffiti artist when they worked on his graffiti together. Mary Beard (in upcoming episodes) apparently gets some serious interest in Latin when she reveals the derivations of the names of familiar English towns.
Amazing professionals can be deeply inspiring – if they connect with things that young people already care about. Jamie was presumably fired up by incredible professional chefs – because he cared about cooking. This is not an argument for only doing what young people say they want to do. Without challenge and the perspective of someone who can see a bigger universe, we risk saying that learning can never be surprising or stretching. It is, to draw on another brilliant gem of popular culture, like the Glee episode where Gwyneth Paltrow is the substitute teacher who lets her class do only what they think is instantly fun. Trouble ensues. Balance is restored in the end when everyone’s favourite teacher, Mr Schuester, brings the combination of teenage obsession and classic musical brilliance together in a mashup of Rihanna’s Umbrella and Gene Kelly’s Singing in the Rain routine. Motivation and stretch.
All of which takes me to – what is Jamie trying to do here? School dinner revolution, Fifteen Foundation – he knows more than other people about food and is using his insight, rebellious streak and celebrity to shine the light on new opportunities and better ways of doing things to make a different to young people’s lives – better ways that can be easily adopted by others and used to improve many, many more lives relatively easily. Here, even if it was a perfect model, shaped by experts who were clear about more of the elements that fantastic learning environments require, what next? Co-opt all celebrities to spend half their time in schools? Eliminate teacher training? Reduce all class sizes to 20 max? This is not a simple ‘I’ve proved it, now do it’ campaign.
Dream school will almost certainly reiterate some important messages – learning by doing is powerful, let’s do more of it; flexibility for teachers to be more responsive to their classes would be good; teachers who are fired up by their love of a subject should be sought and nurtured, for example. And it will probably throw up some serious challenges. Understanding how people learn really matters; getting where young people are coming from matters; and, of course, that this is really hard to do.
These are all useful, nuanced messages that should be heard – and which do not have simple solutions. On one level, if Jamie’s efforts throw those into the open for debate, great. But if this becomes a ‘campaign for more Dream Schools’ then he has seriously overstepped the mark.
I still have big respect for a man who wants to use his profile and resources to tackle some of society’s biggest challenges. But I’m disappointed that he hasn’t recognised that he doesn’t know enough to do it brilliantly – and doesn’t seem to have thought about how to mobilise what he is learning, even if he did.