The Education Select Committee are summoning Jamie Oliver and his band of celebrity teachers from the TV programme ‘Jamie’s Dream School’ to a hearing to find out more about this experiment. If you didn’t see dream school, it was a kind of TV reality show where 20 young people who were not successful at school were “taught” by a group of celebrities including David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Robert Winston, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur.
Like many shows it had some cringe making, toe curling moments especially when the celebrities hit the brick wall of realisation that many of the young people really didn’t give a stuff about learning things at school. When I was a kid I used to hide behind the sofa when the Cybermen moved ominously towards Dr Who, but now I’m a big boy I wedge myself behind a big block of DFS’s best product when scenes such as the King of Pomposity David Starkey lording it over his charges flicker onto my screen. Later in that episode Starkey resorted to jibes about a student’s weight when he realised the ‘kids’ were not about to suddenly rescind their chavvish behaviour and run to the library to borrow copies of Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’. Jamie’s Dream School was first and foremost an entertainment programme. It desperately tried to wrap itself in a cloak of respectability woven from the promises of how it was going to make learning immediate and relevant to the students, and also the experiment of using celebrities to enthuse learners, but it was created to be entertainment and consumed by the public as such. Nothing wrong with that, and much worse programmes have and will continue to be made.
But now the education select committee wants to spend some time with the teachers and students exploring what this all means. This is astonishing to me for a couple of reasons.
Firstly the select committee seem to have jumped mindlessly onto the gravy train of celebrity culture. Do they really think that a celebrity ‘teacher’ who taught for a couple of hours at the most, with cameras in the classroom and a production crew orchestrating’TV moments’, will have insights into education which real teachers who do the proper job day in day out don’t have? The Guardian article (link at end of blog), mentioned that the spokesperson explained that they were looking for evidence from beyond its normal ‘loyal following of education specialists’. I would like to think that the committee regularly invites successful teachers and head teachers who work in challenging real schools to present evidence and takes the time to understand the nuances and great skill required to work in these contexts, but I have not seen evidence that this has happened. Instead the select committee saw a shallow piece of popular entertainment, realised it had some kinds of links to education (tenuous though these were), and realised it would be great fun to have the cast in to liven up proceedings and maybe bag a few autographs for their children. We get lectures nightly from politicians about how the country has ‘run out of money’ and how these are ‘austere and tough times’. This is the case of course, so the committee should consider how they spend their time (and by direct linkage our money) and focus on proper work rather than media friendly publicity stunts.
Secondly, the decision to spend time (and waste money) talking to the dream school crew belittles the role of real education research. There are academics a stone’s throw away from the House of Commons who could spend an entire afternoon telling them about their findings and research work. For instance Professor Dylan Wiliam could visit them and present his work on what really works in schools, how to reform assessment and why smaller classes do not make a difference to achievement. His findings are based on robust research, they have a statistical basis and crucially they move the debate beyond anecdote and onto a more structural basis for making important decisions about how schools should be organised.
The CBeebies Show Chuggington is based around the lives of animated trains. These trains can talk, solve problems, and they always run on time. I look forward to the transport select committee inviting the makers of this programme in to give evidence about how Britain’s railways can be improved. And of course the cast of Coronation Street and EastEnders could visit the Treasury Select Committee and give them insights into how to tackle the North-South divide. I’m going back behind my sofa…