Friday, March 11, 2011

Calder on Air: Jamie's Dream School

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

This was going to be the last word on modern education - and Jamie Oliver's project in particular. Somehow it never happened and I had to fill up the column with other things.

I can claim to have been one of the first to compare Top Gear to Last of the Summer Wine.

In their Dreams

According to Save the Children, over 72 million children are growing up today without an education. In Britain we have the opposite problem: many teenagers are obliged to attend school when they clearly have no wish to be there. At least that was my conclusion from watching the first episode of Jamie’s Dream School (Channel 4).

As I have pointed out before, nothing is real on television and this series seems particularly contrived. When Gareth Malone did something similar last year he taught in a real school – even if we ultimately learned nothing more than that primary school boys respond well to a charismatic male teacher. But Jamie Oliver’s students were recruited through press advertisements, which suggests they may be more interested in fame than education.

And his teachers may be “brilliant”, but such people rarely make good teachers. I remember from my chess-playing days that grandmasters had no idea how little we club and county players knew about the game compared to them.

Not that anyone could teach this lot anything. Stripped of their traditional weapons of sarcasm and physical violence, Jamie Oliver’s celebrity teachers can only make despairing and largely unsuccessful appeals for fair play. It is a good thing you can’t believe anything on television, because as a picture of a generation this was deeply depressing.

You could say that these teenagers would be better off at work: let them come to education later in life if they want to. Certainly, I would like to see money put into adult education to give those who were too lazy or unhappy or stroppy to do themselves justice at school a second chance. This would be a better use of funds than abolishing university tuition fees.

The trouble is that the problem with these teenagers is not their lack or qualifications: it is their inability to listen and unwillingness to accept that anyone can know more than they do. And that makes them unemployable too.


It is a cliché to remark on the parallels between Top Gear (BBC1) and Last of the Summer Wine, but they are remarkably close. There is the tall one who likes telling the others what to do (Jeremy Clarkson/Foggy Dewhurst), the quiet, sensible one (James May/Clegg ) and the small one who is made to risk his life in dangerous contraptions (Richard Hammond/Compo).

Roy Clarke’s whimsical style of writing has never been to my taste, but Summer Wine did have an appealing sadness in its early days: the sadness of retired men reduced to the status of naughty schoolboys because they have nothing to do and nowhere to go. Years, decades before the series ended, that pathos was to be found only in its theme tune. But it went on and on, becoming increasingly contrived.

I foresee a similar fate for Top Gear. Their insulting of the Mexican nation was widely attacked as unpleasant bullying, but no one asked why they had to import an American prejudice unless they were running out of ideas.

Recent BBC advertising campaigns have billed the presenters as “boys” or, absurdly, “the kids on the street who never miss a beat”. But I can see them still on the air, 30 years from now, when that “we’re not middle aged: look, we’ve got really shaggy hair” act is not going to fool anybody.


What have they done to MasterChef (BBC1)? It is now a cross between X Factor and The Apprentice with a bit of vegetable preparation thrown in. It has lost the audience participation that made the early rounds interesting. We could all take the invention test and decide what we would have cooked if faced with those ingredients.

And then there are all the tears and emotion. If you want to be a chef that much, go to catering college. You don’t have to win a television contest to do it.

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