I’ve got a lot of respect for Jamie Oliver. Whilst he could quite easily just spend his time tending to his restaurants, he seems genuinely driven to improve the world around him. Having first tackled school meals he’s recently turned to education through the Dream School project. Whilst I really admire the basic idea of the project – seeing how the education system could be improved to help those who currently leave school without qualifications – it has not been made into good television.
If Dream School was intended as an investigation of why people are failing in the current school system and an exploration of how the situation could be improved, it could have been presented differently. It needed to be much more analytical, discursive and evidence-based. As a social experiment, Dream School was not easy to capture on television; and the attempts to do so imposed constraints which did not help the experiment. So my article here is both an exploration of how Dream School worked as a television programme and a response to some of the ideas about education raised in the show.
Viewers were guided through the Dream School experience by near constant narrative-spinning. It was certainly important to help viewers relate to the students as legitimate people facing challenges, rather than as a threatening homogenous problem mass. But the relentless drive to craft narratives undermined the series. It was incredibly hard to track how the project as a whole was progressing or to form one’s own judgements. I wanted to see timetables and lesson reports; I wanted to see much more detail on the students to better understand each of them. There could easily have been a few episodes before the school gates opened, discussing how the experiment would run and looking into the students chosen and their backgrounds. The experiment would then have been based on much more robust principles than “maybe some celebrity teachers will fix everything”.
Even worse than preventing me from making my own conclusions, the programme went out to make some pretty ramshackle conclusions on the viewer’s behalf. Countless sections of the programme felt crudely manufactured to portray the mood and message sought by the producers. The upbeat feel of David Starkey’s essay class towards the end of the series, for example, was created through confident voiceover and music, and quietly ignored the fact that only 7 students attended the class. We only saw the remarkable lessons, rather than the mundane ones. Did Ellen MacArthur only have one neatly packageable ‘breakthrough’ during all her sailing trips, or did she only lead one expedition? Were Michael Vaughan’s lessons really a complete waste of time? (They didn’t amount to any filmed material deemed worthy of inclusion) When it comes down to it, I still don’t really have a clue what Dream School entailed for its students.
Whilst the series laudably attempted to give us an insight into the lives of a handful of the students, there was no real attempt to follow their development, beyond the most superficial sense needed to package up an episode’s worth of footage. Whilst it was clear that Jamie Oliver really cared about what was going on, I never got the impression that the producers felt the same way.
Take Henry’s episode with Ellen MacArthur. Watched uncritically, it was a moving journey – one young man facing up to himself, improving his confidence and taking some time and space to reflect on his life and relationships. But this was misleading: this event could have happened at any point during the series, and we are left with no idea as to whether the impact was sustained. I want to see the ordinary experience as well as the breakthrough; the slow, dependable victories rather than the flickering sunset of illumination.
Other than seeing a sweet poem he wrote for his parents at the end of the project, we never find out what happened to Henry. But the programme pretends that we do – it pretends that this one moment, this one apparent realisation, is enough. Dream School has been edited to create narratives that may not be legitimate. This problem with Dream School’s use of television as a medium is, in fact, the same problem at the core of its pedagogical understanding.
The final episode finishes with the conclusion “well, we proved they could be inspired.” But that’s not a surprise; nor is the suggestion that too many rules and regulations can stifle teachers’ creativity. The question is how you create this inspiration, and what you do next.
Turning a life around is not just about moments, it’s about graft. We’re right to understand that inspiration is crucial, but change is about much more than one encounter with something amazing. A spark on a wintry night can spark a conflagration that dwarfs the stars, but without any nurturing it’s just more tears lost in rain. People need to be shown how to understand their inspiration and how to work to implement it in their own lives. They are inspired because they have stepped beyond their usual practice and routine – the next thing to do is to help them create new lives. Once you’ve helped someone get a little glimpse of the destination, you have to give them a map and a set of sturdy boots so that they can do the legwork.
This is why I was a little apprehensive about the concept of ‘star teachers’. Setting to one side the implication that somehow ‘normal’ teachers are not capable of inspiring students, my real problem was about creating dependable learning relationships. I would argue that the changes that these young people need to undertake require people to dependably be there for them, to actually challenge them. If the educational legwork after the moment of inspiration does not take place, then soon enough the moment of lucid realisation and understanding will be subsumed into the young person’s usual mental structures and routine, a jewel lost under the waves. These young people need awe coupled with stability, not more abandonment by the forces that are inspiring them to greatness.
Academic success is more to do with self-discipline than it is to do with intellectual prowess. And I mean self-discipline both in the traditional sense and in the sense of the word ‘discipline’ used by Foucault. Success in the education system is much more about conforming to accepted standards of behaviour than it is about intellect. In this sense David Starkey hit the nail on the head: regardless of whether this is a good thing or not, socialisation is essential to academic success.
The exams that young people sit are designed to test – and ritually manifest – this submission as much as anything else. Most exams are a test of one’s ability to sit quietly for a certain amount of time, to use certain writing mechanisms and means of expression. (A lot of the more able students find this a problem too.) Some of this makes sense – when sitting a science exam, for example, it is important to have internalised the scientific way of thinking. One’s scientific self-discipline needs testing. But what doesn’t need testing is the host of superfluities, such as someone’s ability to write using a pen. That’s testing people on something irrelevant and arbitrary, and damning them if they don’t meet this set of standards.
What this all means is that even if Jamie can show that practical teaching works well with these young people, and even if such practical methods of teaching can be used to engender an appropriate depth of understanding, it remains the case that for examinations, one size fits all. Or rather, the individual student had better make themselves fit, lest they get left by the wayside. Dream School didn’t tackle this problem.
Dream School was trying to do an awful lot, and had a grasp of the importance and complexity of what it was setting out to do. But a short television series was not the best way to address this issue. These constrains left its pedagogical vision stunted and rendered its engagement with the wider issues stunted. And the headline innovation of having ‘star teachers’ might make for eye-catching adverts, and some good teaching, no doubt, but might underestimate the complexity of the problem. I don’t think we need to accept these inadequacies – the documentary format has shown us one way of presenting such issues in depth, and drama has shown us another. Having seen the fourth season of The Wire (which looks at the schooling of young people in the inner city), programmes like Dream School seem wilfully facile. The production team didn’t seem to share the vision or drive that of Jamie or his headteacher Dabs, and the end product was much less than it could – or should – have been. But the project as a whole had such a grand aim – to not only understand but to try and solve the problem of young people not fitting with the education system – that I can’t help but admire Dream School.