Gender, education and Jamie Oliver’s ‘dream school’

Jamie’s Dream School, a UK Reality TV series, records the latest crusade of celebrity chef, “entrepreneur and activist” Jamie Oliver. After his attempts to revamp school dinners and get the nation cooking, Jamie took his next venture back to school.

Why? Well, the background story is that Jamie was himself a kid who struggled at school; Jamie has dyslexia and left school at 16 with just two GCSEs . In Jamie’s Dream School, 20 English teenagers who had previously “failed” in education (i.e. not got the recommended 5 A*-C grades at GCSE) are brought together with celebrities from a range of fields including theatre, science, sport, politics and the art world. These “inspirational individuals” are challenged to persuade these young people to “give education a second chance”. The venture is overseen by Jamie and the only qualified teacher in the school, headteacher ‘Dabbs’.

Being interested in Reality TV and feminists working in education, we were both intrigued by the show. We wondered, what’s it saying about education today and about what education could be? And how does gender play out in this vision? We’ve been sharing our thoughts on the show week by week and are left with mixed feelings. We’ll start with two things we like about it…

The show is set up oppositionally as “the great and the good versus the bored and the badly behaved”. And, time and again, the young people are positioned as educational failures through words like “unruly”, “feral” and “undisciplined”. Yet, this opposition between the teachers and the students breaks down within the actual teaching and learning. The students themselves are a diverse group: 9 female and 11 male, from working-class and middle-class homes and a range of ethnic backgrounds. Rather than being marginalised and/or dismissed as school failures, these young people are positioned as normal – they’re 20 of the 300,000 each year who leave school with less than 5 GCSEs at grades C or above and Jamie was “one of them”.

These are young people who are usually ignored outside of educational research. Here they’re centre stage and their views on education are taken seriously by Jamie and the other Dream School teachers. We see events, from a teacher’s name calling to a school trip, from their point of view. While some of their stories border on the clichéd and Hollywood-lite (e.g. Angelique’s painful memory of never being praised in school) others are less familiar (e.g. Jourdelle’s ambitious account of his burgeoning goat herd in the Caribbean). We get insights into the complex home lives and educational histories of these young people. In the case of teenage mum Latoya, who had to leave the school to care for her ill child, we see how, regardless of a commitment to turn their lives around, the issues these young people face are sometimes too powerful to overcome. Their stories highlight how amazing young people are frequently written off, placed in bottom sets where they never get to learn and get labelled as failures. We also see how acutely this is felt and how it impacts on their identities. In a poignant example, middle-class Henry is shown attacking his graffiti art when it goes badly, saying: “If I do something shit, people will think I’m shit”.

Second, the teaching is based on reciprocity, relevance and respect. Dream School, unlike the mainstream education system, is constructed as a place where teachers and students “learn from each other”. The curriculum is restricted neither to the vocational and the practical nor to high status, canonical knowledge. Instead, it is for teachers to make a wide range of subjects (from mathematics and science to home economics, from politics and media to photography) relevant to the young people’s experiences. But above all, respect is at the centre of Dream School pedagogy. One teacher who has a disastrous first lesson is advised by a fellow teacher before returning to the classroom to not talk down to or talk at the students. As part of this there’s no exclusions. This leads to an important lesson for Dabbs, the only Dream School teacher who’s worked in mainstream schools. Early in the experience, he has to be convinced by Jamie not to chuck out, first a badly behaved teacher and then a badly behaved student. He ends his time at Dream School rejecting exclusion as an option: “you’ve always got to try to find a way back for them”.

But, we have three problems with Dream School…

First, although the students are diverse the teachers are not. Of the 18 featured on television there were only five women compared with 13 men. 12 of the men but only two of the women are subject teachers responsible for regular classes (Cherie Booth taking law and Mary Beard classics). Dinner-lady Nora Sands (from Jamie’s earlier School Dinners show) makes a guest appearance in a few of Jamie’s home economics classes and taking up the role of ‘mum’. Ellen MacArthur and Jayne Poynter take one-off extra-curricular activities (a sailing expedition and a stay in a biosphere respectively), each involving only four students and with a strong pastoral element.

All the teachers were white apart from three black men, and, even among these, there was tendency to revert to narrow stereotypes where blackness is associated with urban identities and sports. Other than Alvin Hall who taught mathematics, there was a black music teacher (Jazzie B) and a black sports teacher (Daley Thompson). We know that the ‘real’ teaching profession itself has issues with diversity and representation, but in a Dream School they could have done better.

And let’s not forget class. The show was predominantly full of suited, ‘posh’ grey-haired white men – most powerfully embodied by historian David Starkey. This played out in a clear theme about respect and authenticity. It seemed that some of the teachers who initially found it easiest to gain respect from the young people – such as Jamie, Jazzie B and photographer Rankin – represented something ‘closer’ to the young people than the other teachers, both in accent (more ‘street’ or ‘London’ accents than ‘posh’) and in their experiences. Similarly, Cherie Booth and Alvin Hall both found behaviour improved in their classes after they’d shared details of their working-class upbringings with the group. As Angelique said of Cherie, “she looks proper”, so she had thought the law lessons would be boring but they weren’t.

Second, Dream School is of course a “fantasy” but what is striking is how different it is from mainstream schools. The students may wear uniforms but they’re taught in a small class (and they’re the only class), they call the teachers by their first names and have a lot of one-to-one time. More than this, most schools would surely love to take kids on expensive trips, have a learning support assistant in every class and offer laptops and scholarships to all, but lack of resources and pressure of performativity (just getting students to pass exams) makes this impossible. This school is only for two months and teachers only have to teach a few hours each week: they can spend a whole evening planning a single class and they have complete freedom. As Jamie said, “I’m ripping up the rule book, they’re gonna teach whatever they want, however they want”. Again, we’re sure that all schools would be delighted to be released from the constraints of the National curriculum, external testing and inspection regimes.

Finally, we’re left wondering, is this an attack on teaching or does it illuminate how hard teachers work? On the upside, it does show the “constraints or rubbish that ordinary teachers have to put up with”; Jamie regularly mentions his “massive, new found respect for teachers” and stresses that much of Dream School is “unsustainable”. But undermining this, the whole show is strongly based on the idea of the inspirational teacher (though with a less smooth narrative than you get in Hollywood films like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers) . The idea that untrained celebrities can rejuvenate young people has parallels with Teach First, the scheme that places unqualified but “inspirational” young people into challenging schools. Would Jamie dare to staff a Dream Hospital with untrained celebrity doctors?

In this way Dream School downplays the importance of teacher education and so plays into the current UK government agenda to move teacher ‘training’ from universities into schools. When interviewed about this for a UK newspaper, Jamie was asked how he felt about Education minister “Michael Gove … backing the idea of hiring teachers who don’t have the usual teaching qualifications, which is what you’re doing with Dream School”. He replied: “I think Dream School is questioning everything about schools that we know, including whether you need traditional qualifications to be a teacher – I think we both know that’s a no. Govey could be on to something quite profound there. … I saw him a couple of months ago … I really like him, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be a pain in his ass. I’ve always stayed apolitical. I try to remain unbiased.” Questioning everything about schools and telling new stories of teaching and learning is great but assuming you can do this without getting political is dangerous.

Kim Allen, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University

Heather Mendick, Goldsmiths, University of London


One thought on “Gender, education and Jamie Oliver’s ‘dream school’

  1. I am really happy that Dabbs has seen the light about exclusions. The programme offfers some interesting counterstories to the dominant discourse about ‘problematic teeangers’, and it’s brilliant to see some learning for reasons other than to feed the grade-auditing machine. It is always going to be a bit sensationalised and nonrepresentative, being in the popular media, but Jamie’s comments about ‘Govey’ really undermine the positives for me.

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