Thursday, 17 March 2011

Education Jamie Style

Chris Dillow is no fan of Jamie's Dream School, a preposterous Channel 4 reality show on which celebrity "teachers" try to inspire a group of NEETs with a love of learning. Although no-one seems to be watching. Predictably, the kids seem to have been chosen mainly for their massive egos and ability to play up to the cameras. As have the "teachers", especially one David Starkey, the overexposed Henry VIII bore absurdly billed by Jamie Oliver as "one of the world's top historians". (Teaching art is Rolf Harris, but even Jamie couldn't bring himself to describe him as the world's greatest living artist.) The format owes rather more to Big Brother than to the Big Society. In last night's tear-jerking climax, one girl won a holiday in Arizona after managing to spend three days sitting in a greenhouse with an alarmingly intense redhead.

As for the "headmaster", John "Dabbs" D’Abbro is certainly a bit wet. On last night's episode he called a special assembly to impose order on the unruly pupils - an attempt that lasted approximately 30 seconds as he was reduced to a quivering wreck by a motor-mouth ghetto princess named Harlem. Cue much earnest discussion of her diva-sized ego and "anger management issues". Harlem might not have succeeded in her school career, but she clearly has a deep understanding of the grammar of Reality TV - unlike the hapless D'Abbro, who really does seem to be under the impression that he's running an educational establishment. At the start, we were told that D'Abbro was an inspirational head who had turned around several failing schools. It makes you wonder what his predecessors must have been like.

D'Abbro inspired this wonderful observation from Chris Dillow, to draw your attention to which was my initial purpose in writing this little post:


A giveaway here was when he criticised David Starkey for making an “inappropriate” comment to a kid. Not “wrong”, note, but “inappropriate.”

The use of this word is a hallmark of a particular character that thrived under New Labour. It’s someone who is enough of a moral relativist not to want to use the terms “right” and “wrong”, but no so much of a relativist as they are prepared to forego the power and wealth that comes from passing judgment upon others.


How true.

Another linguistically interesting moment came when financial guru Alvin Hall, brought in to teach maths, expressed scepticism at Oliver's claim that the assembled NEETs were "bright". Some were clever, wily, or able to talk the hind-legs off a rhinoceros, but these educational failures, he opined, scarcely deserved the epithet "bright". But then he's an American, and in the US "bright" means "brilliant", whereas over here it has come to mean little more than "talkative." In our egalitarian culture the word has been subject to severe grade inflation, like exam results.

Talking of which, a new OECD report on the state of the British economy accuses the UK of lying about exam performance. A fairly extreme claim, perhaps, but it's hard to put any other spin on phrases like these:

"Official test scores and grades in England show systematically and significantly better performance than international and independent tests."

"The measures used by the Office for National Statistics... show significant increases in quality over time, while the measures based on cognitive tests not used for grading show declines or minimal improvements."

"Despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last ten years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited in the United Kingdom."

Jamie Oliver is trying to reach out to the kids failed by our educational system, but it's not clear that the "successes" are doing so much better - at least by international standards. "Bright" or otherwise, the students of Jamie's Dream Academy are certainly not stupid. So why did they do so badly at school? Behavioural problems - mainly arrogance and insolence - aside, it might just be that they had the insight to see through the phoniness and stultifying intellectual bankruptcy of what passes for education in many schools, even "high-performing" ones, and lacked the patience and natural conformity needed to jump through its many artificial hoops.