Jamie's Dream School

Jamie’s Dream School was a well-intentioned series of programmes following twenty disaffected young people aged between 16 and 18, to see what happened when they were given specialist teaching by experts. They had each left school with, on average, rather less than one GCSE grade A-C. The list of people ready to attempt to involve this unpromising group was astonishingly rich, and included, for instance, Simon Callow, Rankin, Ellen MacArthur, Cherie Blair and Jazzy B. (There is a full list on the web, at www.channel4.com/programmes/jamies-dream-school/4od)


The programmes showed a good deal of crowd-pleasing conflict between students and teachers. Many people probably shared the opinion of Victoria Coren, writing in the Observer, who blamed the conflict on the students, but in fact it was set up in the very structure of the school. The students had spent eleven years or more in a system which had condemned them as useless. They naturally resented being reminded of that fact, but when they arrived at Dream School they were made to wear school uniform. In the less successful lessons they had to sit down in rows while teachers talked at them about topics which did not interest them. Though most of the courses were far from traditional, the requirement to submit to authority was unchanged, and the curriculum, though sometimes sensational, was the same for everybody. It was the familiar mainstream school approach. Harlem, one of the most vociferous of the student group, declares on the website, ’Mainstream school WILL ALWAYS BE RUBBISH.’ In the circumstances the astonishing thing is not that there was so much conflict between the teachers and the students, but that there was so little.

The Dream School gave its students individual cameras, time in a recording studio, the chance to live in a specially assembled bio-dome, a realistic emergency operation in a hospital, a medieval joust, a visit to the stage of the Globe Theatre.

There were facilities that could never have been afforded in an ordinary school, but it was not the facilities that helped to change the young people’s attitudes. The teachers who succeeded were those who respected them as individuals, gave them practical activities to do or worked with them in areas that interested them. We saw teachers who had been finding the class unmanageable having serious and sensible conversations with individuals whose faces lit up when they were given personal attention. Jazzie B inspired delight, as did Andrew Motion and Tinchy giving a class together (an episode available on the website which was not shown on TV). Nor were we shown the percussion group Stomp and the stunning break-dancers, Soul Mavericks, who had the group working with unfeigned enthusiasm and commitment.

The real head-teacher, John d’Abbro, who was playing the role of head at the Dream School, says in an interview on the website, ‘For me successful teaching is down to the quality of relationships.’ However, like many other people, he is still worried about the fact that half the population leave school with fewer than five GCSEs. This anxiety is irrational. What happens if everyone leaves school with five GCSEs? Are we planning a society with all chiefs and no Indians? More importantly, do we really need to divide ourselves into chiefs and Indians? Should the purpose of education in a democratic country really be so deliberately divisive?

It is not 5 GCSEs that matter, it is a sense of purpose and self-worth. Jamie’s Dream School, almost by mistake, demonstrated that young people who have been humiliated by years and years of so-called education, regain their self-respect when they are treated as equals.

The experiment described in Dartington in Conisbrough* was similar, in that it involved a group of fifteen teenage boys who were among those thought to be least likely to gain anything from an extra year of schooling when the school- leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 in 1973. There were no celebrity teachers, there was no special equipment. There was only an opportunity for the boys to choose for themselves what they wanted to do and to decide how they wanted the group to be run. In their previous year at school their average attendance had been three days a week. By the third week of the new scheme, it was up to 98%, and never afterwards fell below 92%. All went on to enjoy their careers. and two of them are alleged to have become millionaires.

The young people at Jamie’s Dream School were between one and three years older than the Conisbrough group, and yet the effort was still made to turn them into obedient, uniformed school-children. Had the school been run on more democratic lines, had the students been consistently treated as young adults rather than retarded children, the results might have been even more impressive.



Dartington in Conisbrough book cover



* The book, Dartington in Conisbrough, by Pat Kitto, available from www.libed.org.uk, was reviewed in our last posting.








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