You have to hand it to Jamie Oliver for giving it a go. How he kept so positive confronting all those damaged dreams and fragile egos is beyond me. Working with those teenagers could not have been easy, either. Bless him, he remains one of the few people, adults or pupils, to come out of Jamie’s Dream School with his reputation intact.
But here is why his project has nothing to do with education (and everything to do with TV ratings).
Generically JDS has more in common with reality shows like Big Brother, Brat Camp or Tool Academy. These shows are the projects of well-educated TV professionals who delight in making their audience laugh/gasp in shock/anger/horror at badly behaved and not so well-educated young people as they mouth off at each other (and anyone in authority).
A recent sbubset of this televised ‘reality’ is what could be called ‘story-curve TV’. In this construct the protagonists must be shown to move from diastrous beginnings (Simon Callow and David Starkey), overcome immense obstacles (low self-esteem, resentment towards authority) and end in triumph (a ‘well-behaved’ visit to 10 Downing Street), complete with accompanying platitudes about what has been ‘learnt’. In this sense JDS is no different from Grand Designs or Wife Swap.
This is a toxic mix, coldly calculated to bring out the Daily Mail reader in every viewer, tacitly engineering our response so that we all become complicit in what Stephen Ball calls the ‘discourse of derision’, where everyone, teachers and pupils alike, is condemned as useless or feckless.
To achieve this JDS is based on two profoundly insulting premises. First, we are asked to take it as read that the previous teachers of these children are failures (otherwise why would they be there, with ‘0 GCSEs grade A-C’ brandished next to their name each time they are interviewed?). Second, and just as pernicious, is the premise that being an ‘expert’ is a good enough qualification to teach. (I hope Michael Gove watched the early episodes featuring the aforementioned Starkey and Callow and now understands that merely transmitting facts to young people is not a secure model upon which to base an entire education system).
There were highlights, of course. Some of the teachers seemed to get the measure of the task at hand straight away (Alastair Campbell and Cherie Blair) while others who had slow starts achieved good results by changing their course based on a more dialogic pedagogy (Andrew Motion).
But we should not pretend that JDS revealed very much about the complexity of teaching; nor did it explore in any depth the underlying issues in these young people’s lives.
All that matters is that they shouted and swore in the right places, occasionally said they liked something and gave Jamie a hug in the driveway at the end. The premise of this outwardly well-meaning programme is as cynical as that.