Jamie Oliver: “If We Can Engage The Kids, That’s All That Matters…”


I apologise to my non-UK readers, but I have to write a further post about Jamie Oliver’s ‘Dream School’ experiment (but, don’t feel left out, I have a feeling our American colleagues will be getting a version of their own quite soon).

This post has been prompted by two conferences I attended this week. The first, on Thursday, was in Leeds, for the ‘Creating The Future’event. I spoke, briefly, to urge people to resist the imposition of the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate’ (which, lest we forget, is not a new qualification, just a narrowly prescribed way to judge student’s performance) and to ask them to join the campaign to build a better baccalaureate. Children’s Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, spoke eloquently about children’s human right to a well-rounded education, and reprimanded us for describing some kids as ‘hard to reach’. “They’re not hard-to-reach”, said Maggie, “They’re rarely reached”.

In between seeing some truly inspiring examples of young people’s artistry and creativity, through a series of showcases, I watcheda recording of the second episode of ‘Jamie’s Dream School’.

Here were the ‘rarely reached’ in flesh and blood. What was striking was that almost the only time the students were fully engaged was when they were working with Rankin, the photographer, and Musician Jazzie B. In fact, seeing Jazzie B (no previous discernible teaching experience) give a tutorial to the historian, and veteran lecturer, Dr David Starkey on how to engage students, was one of the more ironic moments. Watching these students flourish when encouraged to express themselves (“Don’t tell me these students aren’t creative” opined Jamie) made me even more fired-up about the already-seen impact of the English Bacc – Head Teachers all over the country are now steering students away from the arts and into EB subjects. If we think we’ve seen disengagement so far, we ain’t seen nothing yet, once the EB takes root.

As Maggie said, if you want to engage, you have to start where your students are at: give them cultural hooks they can identify with. This was a point lost on the well-intentioned actor, Simon Callow, who seemed to think that taking his wayward students to watch him perform Shakespeare would be a Damascene conversion. Sadly, all it did was re-affirm the young people’s conviction that they’re failures – this time at understanding iambic pentameters, and at behaving themselves in an audience of middle class theatre-goers.

And so to the RSA’s Opening Minds Conference yesterday. David Aaronovitch made a strong case for arguing that, far from being a soft option, media studies should be valued for giving young people the vital skills they need to become discerning information seekers. And he’s right: every one of us uses search engines in our daily work, so the most useful skill we can gain is knowing which information sources to trust and which to ignore. But we in England are facing the prospect of a retreat to the curricula and pedagogies of the 1950’s, so, unless our disturbingly compliant school leaders are roused into action, media studies (and the arts) could well be off the menu.


By chance, over lunch I met the ‘Dream School’ Head Teacher, John D’Abbro. I told him how much I was enjoying the series. He seemed to expect a sting in the tail, when there wasn’t one. He then told me that since the series aired, he’d been on the receiving end of all kinds of vitriol from people all over the country. This is a real shame, I think, because having celebrities attempt to teach these kids (repeatedly demonised in the media as ‘feral’) reveals a number of truths:

  • Teaching disengaged kids is bloody hard, and highly skilled, work;

  • You don’t have to have a higher class degree to be a good teacher – an understanding of their lives, and a passion for your subject, is worth much more;

  • However much the teaching community has protested, hardly any parent in the country would have watched a worthy attempt to show real teachers, teaching tough kids, in a real school. So this programme, if it’s achieved nothing else, has got the country talking about teaching, learning, and the vital importance of engagement – however artificial the context of Dream School;

  • The arts are often one of the few areas that allow disengaged students the chance to understand themselves, and the world they often struggle to fit into – deprive them of this opportunity at your peril;

  • To have a shared language of learning which offers a choice between, on the one hand, pedagogical jargon, or seeing students’ experiences solely in terms of grades and targets, excludes parents and students from a genuine debate about the purpose of schooling, and therefore impoverishes us all.

And listening to Sir Ken Robinson do the closing keynote reminded me of a time when I was lucky enough to work quite closely with him. He once asked a graduating student at Warwick University what she felt she’d gained from tertiary education. “I got a B”, came the reply.


Whilst one could criticise the programme’s premise (why, for example, attempt to give these kids a second chance at engagement, if you simply replicate the strictures of their previous schools with uniforms and subject-based, one-hour slots?) the show has tried to get to the heart of what makes the biggest difference to young people’s lives: engaging pedagogy. As Ken observed, raising standards is not an industrial process – you can’t build kids’ learning like you build cars, because, unlike cars, kids care how they’re being put together. The way to raise standards with these kids – the only way – is to engage them, and engage with them, creatively.

My next post will be from, not a Dream School, but a completely engaged school. I’m taking a group of Learning Futures teachers on a study visit, over to our partner High Tech High schools in San Diego, who recognise what most politicians fail to do that if you haven’t got engagement, you really don’t have any learning. It should be great.


2 Responses to Jamie Oliver: “If We Can Engage The Kids, That’s All That Matters…”

  1. Gillian Howell says:

    Hi David, so great to meet you this week. I’m enjoying reading through these posts, nd especially this one on “hard to reach” students. I’ve just finished a phone meeting with the teacher I’m to work alongside next term as a musician-in-the-classroom, and was alarmed by the dullness of the music learning program she described. No direct criticism of her intended – she is doing her best with a cohort of students whose lives are truly tough and have every reason to be disengaged. “You never give them a choice!” she said emphatically. “Never ever let them choose what they want to learn!” I’m looking forward to working with her to find some other ways to get her students making music, really making music.

  2. David Price says:

    Wow, that’s pretty hard-core, Gillian! Presumably her other advice is ‘Never smile at them’ and ‘No Keyboards till Easter’ too…. I hope the TV programme comes to Australia, because it shows how hard it is working with tough kids. But I wonder has that teacher ever considered that it is the complete lack of choice which is provoking that kind of behaviour?Good luck with it, I’m sure you’ll tap into the kids’ creativity because that’s what you do – brilliantly.Great to meet you to0. Stay well.

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