And next week, the Commons Select Committe for Catering will be hearing evidence from the latest participants of the TV show “Come Dine With Me.”
A year ago the newly appointed schools minister, Nick Gibb, made clear that he did not consider teaching skills to be important for teachers. Politicians clinging to ideology and bias is hardly a news story, and you only need to ask Professor David Nutt for further examples of government meddling in the sharing of evidence. More recently Gove’s suggestions – from 50 books a year for all students to the opportunities offered to tiny percentages of pupils through the free schools programme – have angered many who have seen them as stemming from a nostalgic view of private schooling.
On Tuesday, and since then, many teachers have been particularly frustrated by the Commons Select Committee for Education. They chose to interview some of those involved with Jamie Oliver’s controversial Dream School project. If you missed it, this idea involved asking university academics, Olympic sports personalities and Shakespearean actors to ‘teach’ disgruntled and disruptive students. To put this in perspective, they worked with the students for on average an hour a week over several months. They appeared to have little advance instruction in teaching techniques, but to rely on inspiring students with their wit, charm and considerable subject knowledge. It would be fair to say that their success was variable.
So naturally these are the people who understand behaviour issues in British schools.
The Select Committee has many alternative sources of information – but they seem to have forgotten that they asked for it only 3 months ago. This wasn’t a chance to get a contrasting viewpoint to reports from OfSted that emphasize the need for a range of agencies, counselling and mental health services and the use of teaching assistants. They didn’t refer to research from the General Teaching Council, or even their own Department for Education review pointing out the dangers of focusing on details of the curriculum at the expense of classroom management, especially for staff new to the profession. Many organisations, including the Teacher Support Network, have pointed out that free schools and academies tend to encourage competition rather than cooperation – making it harder for teachers to share ideas. And this is before I point out just how many world-class researchers in education could explain their evidence-based ideas, if asked. (@DeclanFleming did a great job tweeting his responses to the video, which he has since Storified.) Why are the opinions of a handful of non-teachers being seen as having equal weight to that of education professionals and the research they have undertaken?
The focus in government often seems to be on the small number of extreme cases, rather than on the persistent low-level disruption which makes life so difficult, and learning less successful, in classrooms over the country. Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t worry about students bringing knives to school. I’d just like students to be able to focus on learning, rather than a long series of exams and resits which they see as my problem, not theirs – because they know that grades matter to the school.
Dream School was about experts inspiring young people. The problem is that, to misquote Ben Goldacre, teaching is ‘a little more complicated than that’. Of course teachers – myself included – aim to inspire students. We are enthusiastic about our subjects and hopefully knowledgable. We hope to share our interest, the ideas that captivated us in the past and often still do. It was clear as the series continued that the ‘teachers’ at Jamie’s Dream School were also passionate and expert, and in some cases students were able to recognise this, even respond to it. But it was also painfully obvious how vital the other skills of teaching are to a functioning classroom. They struggled, partly because they failed to understand that teaching is more than inspiration. The kids on the show hadn’t failed in mainstream education just because Rolf Harris had never shown them how to draw a picture, or because they’d never dissected anything supervised by Professor Robert Winston.
To me – and I suspect to many teachers – Dream School was a huge missed opportunity. I would kill for the chance to share some of those resources with my classes, even to team-teach with some of those people. Imagine if instead of trying to reach just 20 students, a completely different programme had been created. Imagine if Tinchy Stryder and Alistair Campbell, Simon Callow and Ellen MacArthur had found out what teaching is really like – not by taking on a full timetable, complete with marking, but by visiting real schools.
Imagine 12 inner city schools being offered a schedule with a dozen visitors. Imagine Rolf Harris and Mary Beard seeing 5 classes in a day, supported by regular classroom staff. Imagine if Starkey, with his resources and knowledge, had been paired with an experienced and enthusiastic, professional. Imagine what we as teachers would have gained from the chance to talk to someone at the top of their field as a peer, to swap ideas and see what they were excited about sharing with the students. Imagine how much those young people could have learned if instead of playing pretend for the camera, it had been real. Imagine if Jamie had realised that teaching, just like history, law or science, is a career and a profession in its own right.
- Jamie’s dream school presents findings to education select committee (mattpearson.org)