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

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis