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Comprehensive shouldn’t mean incomprehensible

<em>Jamie’s Dream School</em>, the TV programme currently trying to inspire school “failures”, could

Last week, I watched a jaw-droppingly impressive dance show by the Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton - no fewer than 260 children, aged 11-16, from an "ordinary" comprehensive of 1,600 kids, performing an extraordinarily professional show. I was thinking about it as I watched the latest episode of Jamie's Dream School, the TV programme in which Jamie Oliver tries to inspire 20 school "failures" to succeed, offering them lessons from the likes of David Starkey and Simon Callow.

The opportunities mainstream schools can offer these days are such that there has to be something really wrong for a child to get nothing out of them. Yet that is what the teenagers in Oliver's programme have apparently managed to do. On teachers' forums, the reaction to the programme, especially to Starkey's arguments with the pupils, has been predictably defensive: mostly comments along the lines of "Now they see how hard it is". I wonder what the same teachers will say when Jamie's school turns out to be a "success", as it is bound to do.

With a teacher/pupil ratio of 1:1 and with the students clearly on the bright side of failure, Jamie's school should succeed. Any ordinary school would be delighted to have the resources the "dream school" has been given to tackle its underachievers: sailing lessons with Ellen MacArthur, music with Jazzie B. But in real life, schools do not have the staff and have a strict curriculum to follow. They simply have to manage the disruptive children as best they can to stop them preventing others from learning.

Spanish imposition

I have worked in an ordinary secondary school where one of the lessons was worse than anything we have seen at Jamie's dream school, teenagers kicking chairs over, swearing, burning with self-righteous fury when sanctioned, but most of all bristling with insecurity, which all that bravado couldn't hide. It was awful to witness. And that was a "normal" school with an outstanding Ofsted report. The trouble was that, as a modern foreign languages secondary school, it had to teach every child a language. These kids could barely read and write in English, so forcing them to sit through a Spanish class could have been designed as a particularly vindictive humiliation - they were furious. It wasn't the school's fault.

There isn't a lot the secondary schools can do for some kids under the current system. By the time a child gets to secondary school, if he or she has not been taught the basics, it is too late for the school to catch him up. He will be four to five years behind already, frustrated and feeling a failure, and is likely to be disruptive as a result. Most children branded "special needs" by schools in these circumstances are in special need of education, as their teachers will admit. Many have parents who are afraid of school, too, or don't give a damn about their child's education. I remember one girl who was kept at home from a GCSE exam because her mum said she had to look after her younger sibling.

One must look to primary schools, then, for the source of much secondary failure. Labour had a good story to tell: the proportion of children not reaching the expected level of maths and English aged 11 fell during the past ten years, even - crucially - among children from deprived backgrounds. According to figures collated on the Poverty Site, in schools with high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, 30 per cent of pupils in 2010 did not reach level 4 at Key Stage 2 in English, compared to 43 per cent a decade earlier. For maths, the equivalent figures were 28 per cent in 2010 compared to 44 per cent a decade earlier, another achievement on which Labour failed to stamp its mark at the general election.

Looking to the primary schools means looking to the parents. A much-publicised study in London in the late 1970s, the Haringey Reading Project, showed that when parents of primary school children listened to their kids read aloud at home, those children had a more positive
attitude to school and achieved significantly improved results over a two-year period, even compared with other kids who were given extra help with reading by a specially trained teacher at school. The improvements were across the ability range; and, in fact, for those children of the lowest ability, the specialist teacher assistance at school was least effective.

Gobbledegook high

Having helped out with stragglers at primary-school level, I can attest to it being boring, repetitive and time-consuming. It is a job for their parents. Yet, in many state schools today, the parents say they are not told how to help; while the teachers insist the parents wouldn't help anyway, or don't understand, for example, what a "number bond" is.

A lot of the jargon in which teachers wrap themselves seems designed to repel; or perhaps to affect an impression that they are doing complicated work, when what they are doing is what we would call sums and spelling. A "split diagraph", for God's sake? It's as if, having removed teachers' professional independence, the educational establishment has had to replace it with something that sounds like professionalism but is formulaic gobbledegook.

This is where the Jamie Oliver school scores. No gobbledegook. No formula. No targets. Just a challenge: be interested. Children have always been distracted in class, from the six-year-old wondering why there are more green pencils than yellow in the pencil pot instead of studying their "100 square" to the teenager chatting or sending a text message. I also teach undergraduates, and some of them send texts in class. It's only a modern version of staring out of the window. If a teacher is interested and interesting - and that means being innovative and tailoring education to the individual - then they switch back on. Which, I suspect, is what Jamie's dream school will end up showing us.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world