Like many who work in education, I was ready to dismiss Jamie Oliver’s new series as an irrelevance. Bringing in 18 of ‘Britain’s most inspirational individuals’ to rekindle a group of kids labelled ‘failures’ is both unrealistic and unsustainable as a model of educational reform.
One by one, celebrity teachers deployed a variety of teaching methods (though none appear to have had any experience of teaching at secondary level) and those seen so far appear to have emerged bruised and battered by the experience.
But I soon realised that ‘turning around’ the young people’s attitude wasn’t the point of the series. It appears to be attempting to do a number of things, quite brilliantly:
1. Demonstrate that subject knowledge alone is insufficient to re-engage kids who have been turned off school. Historian David Starkey may know his stuff, but his total lack of empathy and abusiveness towards some students lost the entire class instantly, and I’d be surprised if he gets them back without a major shift in approach.
2. Provide a telling portrait of the students involved which avoids the usual class stereo-types – one of the least engaged students comes from a well-off, caring, middle-class family. The young people featured come across as bright, energetic and savvy. Oliver described them as ‘normal’, and in many ways they are (since they represent the 50% of kids who fail to get 5 good exam passes, they’d have to be).
3. Show that learning cannot be an involuntary act. You can’t learn in spite of yourself – it has to be supported by concepts which some would see as ‘woolly’ or ‘liberal’: motivation, emotion, engagement, relevance and, yes, even affection.
Because it made for car-crash television, Starkey’s encounter has attracted the most press coverage. In an interview with the Times Educational Supplement Dr Starkey reflected on the process thus: “You are like a lion tamer dealing with savage beasts.The saddest thing is that you totally fail to get through. One girl said she loved history but said this was just like every other class she’d had. These children are destroyed by this process and it is because of this forced liberalism – it is unkind to students and to teachers.”
So, an unrepentant university don blames liberalism, oblivious to the student’s assessment that he wasn’t doing anything different to previous teachers’ attempts. Did he not feel embarrassed that, despite a student’s professed love for history, he’d failed to engage her?
The media reaction to the first programme has been divided on predictably political lines. The right has deplored our feral ‘unteachable’ youth, arguing that this is what happens when schools aren’t temples of discipline, while the left has taken Jamie to task for repeating the mistaken approaches of the past, which branded these kids failures in the first place.
Neither stance seems to offer much hope to the students in question. Daily Mail readers have no Plan Bshould the ‘more discipline’ strategy fail (which it surely would – some of the kids will have attended schools where discipline is already tight). So, do we just abandon them?
As it happens, I didn’t think that some of Jamie’s more enlghtened faculty were simply doing more of the same. People like Dame Ellen MacArthur and Lord Robert Winston, seemed to recognise the importance of what repeated research demonstrates, but relatively few schools practice: experiential, hands-on and purposeful learning will engage all students, not just the ‘naughty’ crowd. And exam results will improve as a result.
The sad truth, however, is that politicians like to believe that teaching + discipline = learning – it’s like cranking a lever – and that things like motivation, or engagement have no part to play.
The nightmare which hangs over this programme is that current government policy seems to favour Dr Starkey’s pedagogy, not Lord Winston’s. We’ve already seen that Secretary of State Michael Gove doesn’t want to waste money on architectural school designs which might humanise the learning environment through creating light, open spaces. The education bill, now making it’s way through parliament, shines a light on ‘The Importance of Teaching’ but makes no attempt to examine how greatlearning happens, settling for more clampdowns on bad behaviour. And it doesn’t even mention the need to engage students, preferring to focus on disciplining them instead.
There’s lots of evidence now which shows that emotion and engagement are crucial to learning – without them deep learning can’t take place . As the ancient Chines proverb has it, ‘Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand’. Despite the protestations of the uniform-and-detention brigade, you can’t make anyone learn anything. But we still ‘do’ learning to students, as if we were afraid that, by respecting their views, and giving them agency over what they want to learn, students would go off in some frivolous and meaningless direction. Is there a child on earth who, given the option, would choose not to learn how to read and write properly?
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘The secret of education is respecting the pupil.’ One can only hope that the government might be inspired by Jamie Oliver to try to understand these disengaged learners a little more, and judge them a little less.