Keep Oliver’s army out of the classroom

Schools don’t need ex-soldiers or St Jamie Oliver – they just need teachers confident in their own authority.

David Bowden

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One of the classiest scenes in the HBO series The Wire comes in the third season, where its portrait of Baltimore in decline takes a step back to look at the city’s failing schools.

Controversial police major Bunny Colvin takes to the stage in the gymnasium of a tough middle school, resplendent in his gilded uniform, to give a lecture about drugs and crime, only to be confronted with a mini-riot. As Colvin, and the audience, briefly reflects on the apparently feral nature of Baltimore’s youth already preparing for a tough life on the streets, the ruckus is silenced by the intervention of the doughty headmistress, who quietens the room with a few well-selected dressing downs. It was the kind of subtle storytelling that made the show such a runaway hit: despite the worst fears of the adult imagination, kids are still kids, and a good teacher can command more authority than a hardbitten cop.

In the following season – which focuses explicitly on education – we see two of those cops take to teaching in the same school with some aplomb, drawing on the experience of co-writer Ed Burns, who himself began his career as a police detective before becoming a teacher. Even though one of the characters succeeds as a teacher where he failed as B’more po-lice, the sense that the only teacher training that matters these days requires a uniform and a capability with weaponry is difficult to shake.

School discipline and teacher training have been all over our screens this week, presumably to coincide with this year’s round of pupil allocations to UK state secondary schools. On BBC1 we had a Panorama special, ‘Classroom Warriors’, on bringing in ex-soldiers to teach in schools and instilling a bit of military discipline. Then, tapping into the interest around the Conservative party’s much-discussed free school initiative and proving the old adage that where there’s muck there’s Jamie Oliver, we had Jamie Oliver’s Dream School on Channel 4.

Panorama was a sad tale of institutional dysfunction and cowardly retreat from higher principles around the search for meaning. But that’s enough about the way in which the BBC has gutted its flagship documentary series by slashing it to half an hour so that it resembles nothing more than a YouTube mash-up of what serious journalism used to look like. ‘Classroom Warriors’ was actually a revealing look, albeit unintentionally, at the problems inherent in education, told through the prism of a failing Birmingham comprehensive school that has started to turn its fortunes around by recruiting former servicemen to teach. It’s a scheme which has had some success in the US and Michael Gove is keen to trial it over here, too. Presumably to confirm everyone’s prejudices that weedy, geeky kids at school grow up to be authoritarian Tories.

So, while there was much fretting about whether Gove was secretly training up the next generation of imperialist cannon fodder, it was striking that the soldiers on parade in the classroom actually seemed to be competent and motivated teachers. Even more intriguingly, what passes for military discipline these days resembles less the naked, stick-beating tactics of yesteryear, than the tedious team-building exercises management consultants are so terribly keen on today. The soldier-teachers in the programme seemed sincere in talking up their skills in ‘peace-keeping’ and ‘communication’ which is, after all, what the British military was all about before it got mired in the bloody and useless wars of liberal intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody, however, seemed particularly interested in what the teachers were teaching, or what the kids were actually learning, which seemed to suggest the problems of education go somewhat deeper than a crew-cut and neatly-polished boots.

Surprisingly, Jamie Oliver’s Dream School did actually seem halfway interested in the education part of education, even if you did have to squint very hard. Cunningly, the programme makers had decided the best strategy was to keep Oliver as far away from the teaching process as possible. This meant he was reduced to standing outside classrooms shaking his hands and talking bollocks while everyone else got on with the actual task.

The basic premise of the Dream School seems to be to disprove the idea that any kids are unteachable. All you need to do is, in front of a national TV audience, stick them in a school dedicated to their each and every need, bring in eminent academics, scientists and, er, Simon Callow to teach them and, hey presto, they might learn something. Yes, well, if my auntie had a dick she’d be my uncle, as the Spanish say.

The most illuminating moment came when star historian David Starkey discovered that being the most risible prick in British intellectual life counts for nothing when trying to out-banter your average 16-year-old boy. Given the other premise of the programme seems to be showing how hard teaching is and that it’s a skill that can’t be learned from books, etc, it told you everything you need to know about the problems facing actual teachers today that the school’s headteacher was outraged that Starkey had crossed the line by being rude to the kid. This missed the rather more obvious criticism that the infantile Starkey had shattered his own authority by trying to engage in a naff bit of banter instead of rising above it, as a grown-up should. Whatever the teaching credentials of the hefty former US marine in Panorama, he at least seemed to know that his job was to be a source of adult authority to his students and to use this to teach them stuff (you had to pass a test to get let into his class).

Above all, however, these programmes left you with a simple, unintentional message: kids don’t need soldiers, peacekeepers, role models, facilitators or even high-profile academics. What they need are teachers, backed by a society which, seeing the classroom as more than a holding pen for all of society’s fears, trusts them to get on with finding the best way to educate kids. Quite why it’s thought that it should be done by anyone else would make an insightful programme in itself, but one perhaps beyond the low horizons of many of today’s educationalists.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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