Dream On: Jamie Oliver's New School Fails In Reality

25/03/2011 12:20 | Updated 22 May 2015

In TV as in life, it's often the Brits rather than the Yanks who cut through the schmaltz and talk about life realistically rather than idealizing everything.

However, last week the stereotypical roles were reversed after an American socked a few home truths to Jamie Oliver about his aspirational Dream School, a social experiment for Channel 4.

Oliver, who left school with two GCSEs and found his salvation in cooking, has brought together a group of teenagers who have struggled in school, failing to achieve enough qualifications, and teamed them up with some of the most successful celebrities in their respective fields of expertise.

Simon Callow is on drama, Lord Robert Winston takes science and Mary Beard attempts Latin with this unruly mob. On paper I loved the idea and thought it would set an incredible example to schools everywhere.

However, a recurring theme during this great TV show, is just how terribly behaved the kids are as a group, and how much the format was developed with great entertainment value in mind – over the best way for these kids to get educated.

To paraphrase the spot on observation of eighteen-year old Danielle, 'It's just like being back at school – I can't concentrate because everyone is shouting at each other and I can't hear what the teacher is saying'.

Despite the high walk-out rate, and the sight of talented 'teachers' such as the historian David Starkey and the former poet laureate Andrew Motion with their heads in their hands, Oliver and his headmaster, keep saying just how "bright" these kids are.

Until super-bright Alvin Hall, a financial trainer, walked in during episode three.

Hall comes from a difficult background. Growing up in the US, he fought for everything he has to date and can really empathise with the kids without patronizing them, while teaching them the dreaded Maths.

And yet, they still don't really listen to him.

After his first experience of teaching at Dream School, a puzzled Hall turns to the camera and says something along the lines of: 'Why does everyone keep calling these kids 'bright'? In America bright means something very different – It's only applied to really smart people."

Hall doesn't doubt that these kids have had it tough and are emotionally intelligent, as well as being wily, but what he doesn't understand is the need to patronize them and cover up for their poor conduct.

And that's what Oliver is doing every single time he calls these kids 'bright' – as if the term will cover a multitude of deep-set academic and behavioural issues. The majority of these teens, not yet mature enough to realise how beneficial the people they are being rude to every day could be, are not 'bright' in the true sense of the word.

In truth it's the teachers at Dream School who are 'bright' and have not been given the correct set-up to help impart their wisdom to the children who need their help.

School didn't work for these teens for lots of reasons. Perhaps most crucially because of the pack mentality that prevents them from learning in a group ruining the lessons for themselves and everyone else.

Yes, it makes great TV. And yes, probably some of the kids involved will be hired by Oliver, or offered opportunities that they wouldn't have if Dream School had never existed. But by not organising one-on-one training for each pupil, Oliver missed a great opportunity.

Unfortunately Dream School failed to deliver a much-needed reality.

Emma Barnett is the Digital Media Editor of The Daily Telegraph. She writes about media, culture, technology and social issues and has a monthly column in The Sunday Telegraph. Emma is also a broadcaster, regularly contributing to BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, BBC World Service, Sky News, CNN and LBC. Additionally she has written for The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire Magazine, TimeOut London, The Stage Newspaper and Media Week. She can be found tweeting via @emmabarnett.


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