Why Jamie Oliver’s Dream School Points To A Nightmare


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.




6 Responses to Why Jamie Oliver’s Dream School Points To A Nightmare

  1. HRogerson says:

    I too hope that the government are watching the Jamie Oliver program. I hope that they can see that more than giving us powers to issue detentions will help to engage students. Moreover they will realise that teaching involves skills and good teachers need incentives to stay in the classroom. Maybe, just maybe they will realise that teaching students like the ones on Jamie’s dream school is exhausting and instead of using academies and free schools to get rid of teachers pay and conditions perhaps they should enforce the work load agreement in all schools, or even improve them. That would be a dream!

  2. GScholey says:

    The part that stands out for me is when Jamie Oliver asks these young people “why are you at dream school?”. Jamie demonstrates simply and without the same effort as many of the “experts” how speaking to the students at an adult level works. These kids are listened to in a way that makes them feel heard, they are respected in what they say and the topic has meaning and relevance for them.The trust is being built , a key factor in any learning relationship!

  3. marc nash says:

    I agree with you that this is indeed a rich programme in so many ways taht it throws a light on to things not just to do with education, but society-wide, such as celebrity, fame, definition of success etc.But to stick to the educational issues, the programme will influence nothing in government, because education like everything, will be calculated purely in terms of cost and money-saving. A cost-benefit analysis without regard to the benefit. Education has always been the most politically divisive of all issues, the private versus State education divide being the hub of it. Under the Conservatives in the 1980s I feel there was a recognition that maybe 1/3 of the State schools were sink schools, purely there to contain the students both as legal obligation to have them at school (in name only) and to keep them off the streets. Blair’s Labour Party tried to bring up the levels of these school, but like everything with Blair, they wouldn’t commit any true economic resources to the initiative. All these ideals and initiatives are lip service, because the judgment is the country can’t afford the real investment required. We’re too busy squandering our assets on a celebrity culture…

  4. Mark says:

    However, without discipline and a structured learning environment, no learning or engagement can take place. This includes the creative thinkers. Abuse and disruptive behaviour serves no-one.

  5. David Price says:

    Couldn’t agree more Mark. The question is ‘how is that best achieved?’

  6. UKSecEd says:

    It’s not what you teach; it’s how you teach it! Look at the overwhelming evidence generated during the Musical Futures evolution? Even Mr Lloyd-Webber has had to re-position himself on its success in keeping kids interested and engaging youngsters with Music. Everything time we make some progress we seem to take a step back!

Leave a Reply