Jamie's Dream School

Who's ruder - dropout kids or David Starkey?

The first part of Jamie's Dream School (Wednesdays, 9pm), in which various talented notables attempt to inspire a bunch of secondary-school dropouts, was disappointing from my point of view. Thanks to Channel 4's copious advance publicity, I was so looking forward to seeing Alastair Campbell (Mr Politics) and Cherie Blair (Ms Human Rights - and do stop sniggering at the back) get hit by the 21st-century equivalent of an ink bomb. Alas, I'll have to wait another week for that great treat.

In part one, the 20 students, none of whom had left school with the minimum five GCSEs, were taught only by a first tranche: Simon Callow (drama), Robert Winston (science), Rolf "Can-You-Tell-What-It-Is-Yet?" Harris (art), Ellen MacArthur (sailing) and David Starkey (history and a light smattering of rudeness). Well, I say "taught". That's an exaggeration. There was very little learning going on. Mostly what we saw was shouting, disrespect (ironic, given how obsessed with "respect" these teenagers are), boredom and a pathetic kind of chippiness that drove me, for one, nuts. Oh, yes - and puking. This lot are so feeble that the sight of a pig's intestines - urgh, that's disgusting, innit, Mr Winston! - has them rushing outside to hurl up their guts.

Why, I wonder, did they agree to take part, given how completely uninterested they are in anything other than texting, smoking and lip? They are all over 16, after all; this is voluntary. You will say that they fancied being on the telly, and you are probably right. But how much more interesting this series would have been had Jamie recruited to his "dream school" students who had failed, but who also genuinely wanted to rewrite their futures.

I doubt this is his fault, though. The people at Channel 4 are more interested in drama than in enabling young brains to fire. We know this not only by the students they have enrolled, but also because, so far, no one has even suggested doing the one thing that would immediately fix the discipline problem. Why has the class not been divided into two groups - one of boys, the other of girls? I remember enough about my own co-educational, and at times very rowdy school to identify in these girls a desire to learn wrestling hard with the fear of looking uncool in front of the boys - and vice versa.

Oh, well. The humiliation of the staff is entertaining. As Jamie put it: "We [the talented celebs] are used to people being interested in us . . . but they [the students] don't give a shit." On Question Time, David Starkey rises like a cobra in a basket to the occasion. But in Jamie's Dream School, he sweated a lot and finished his first lesson - about Anglo-Saxon jewellery, which Starkey thought very Beyoncé and the kids thought very boring - looking surprisingly chastened, even a little sad. "Attention deficit disorder is . . . a description of a whole generation," he said, having noted the class's inability to concentrate. "And that makes them . . . fodder. And the tragedy is, they're destroying themselves." Rolf Harris and Simon Callow looked like they might cry, although Callow is his own worst enemy. The man is an actor, for God's sake. Why does he not modify his ridiculous popinjay voice a little?

There is an interesting tension, too, in that while the school's head teacher, John d'Abbro, is painfully PC, Jamie is clearly a traditionalist at heart - for all that he left school with only two GCSEs. As part one ended, the pair were at battle over Starkey, who had called a boy "fat" (the comment was unkind and injudicious but it was not, I'm afraid, inaccurate).

D'Abbro is upset about this, and thinks it a sacking offence, which is somewhat bewildering given that Starkey needs this gig like he needs a hole in the head. But Jamie, impressed both with Starkey's brain and with his background (his mother was a cleaner) is keen to keep him. Jamie, inevitably, will win this battle, assuming Starkey can be bothered to continue instructing the class in the ways of Henry VIII's codpiece. For all his faults, Oliver knows instinctively that it is patronising to mollycoddle the deprived and disenfranchised - and that those on the receiving end of such treatment always recognise it for exactly what it is.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle