Sunday, 20 February 2011

My Dream School

Jamie, Jamie, Jamie. Why did you have to do this? I've been such a fan, ever since the beginning. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have got into cooking, and maybe even food, if it hadn't been for the Naked Chef. Your books are still the ones I turn to most often, I've enjoyed every one of your TV shows, and I even downloaded that Tim Kay song from iTunes (catchy on first listen, irritating ever after). Your School dinners campaign was clearly heartfelt, and though I don't really want my £30 main course cooked by someone with an ASBO at Fifteen, the concept is great, and you only have to look at the number of copycat presenters and programmes to see that you already have a legacy to be proud of. I know that the 'Dream School' project hasn't been dreamed up by you, and that you've probably got nothing but good intentions, but it's such a bad idea. It's simplistic, patronising and is likely to do the very opposite of what it's supposed to achieve.

Assuming that I'm not now talking direct to Jamie, and just in case the paragraph above makes little sense, I'm talking about the new C4 programme called 'Dream School', in which philanthropic Jamie states that 'I was rubbish in School...' (we're not told why, though it could be for any number of reasons), and ' it got me thinking: what would a dream School be like?' Well apparently, a dream School includes the following:

1. Children who are very difficult to teach, and have been essentially 'failed' by the current system. The 'system' presumably means the Government, Department for Education, the State School system, the Schools themselves and the teachers within those Schools.

2. A selection of 'star' teachers, who all happen to be from TV-land. We've got Alistair Campbell in to teach politics, David Starkey to teach History, Rolf Harris in to teach Art (did no-one think this was going a bit far?) and Ellen McArthur in to teach 'expeditions'. Not sure I remember any double lessons in that subject when I was at School, but presumably they felt that she looks so much like a 14-year old boy that she wouldn't look too out of place in Jamie's academy.

The tag-line for the show is: 'can star teachers make star pupils?', which is a pretty good soundbite. I don't want to get ahead of myself (and I've done a little cheating by reading Campbell's blog), but I suspect the programme will start with all the teachers struggling because these are difficult pupils, we'll have some heartwarming moments where the celebrity teachers get through to some of the pupils on at least some levels, and we'll end up having not made any real difference, but the teaching profession as a whole will get some praise because some celebs have realised that it's quite difficult teaching young people who don't want to learn.

Here are the problems I have with this programme:

1. These people aren't star teachers. They are a collection of people who do other jobs, and the only thing that they have in common is that they are good in their field, and they are famous for being on TV. I'm not sure how David Starkey (an engaging presenter of reasonably high-brow History programmes on channel 4) can ever hope to be described as a star teacher. I'm also not sure why any teenagers with a history of dysfunctional behaviour should be turned on to History simply because it's now taught by a middle-aged man from a TV programme they've never watched, who has never been a teacher.

2. Alistair Campbell mentions in his most recent blog that the only time he got any 'cred' with the pupils was when they found out about his erotic story-writing past. I'm glad he's made this breakthrough. Presumably we just need to get a couple of slappers from television X, and we're bound to gain a whole load more 'cred' with these children. Maybe Jenna James can drop by for a seminar on Whiggism in 1770s Lancashire?

3. The whole premise of the programme is that these pupils are being failed by their Schools, and specifically by their teachers. Jamie's own admission that 'I was rubbish at School' really means that 'I was failed by my teachers at School'. If this wasn't the case, surely the way to solve this problem is not to bus in a whole load of better (celebrity) teachers. There are poor teachers in every School, and there are excellent teachers in every School. The pupils he has chosen are amongst some of the most challenging individuals, and to suggest that it's only the quality of teaching they receive that needs to be addressed is simplistic.

4. What's next, Jamie's dream hospital? This is a sure-fire winner of a show where we visit some of the most under-pressure hospitals in the country. We note that some people are 'rubbish at hospital', and some people are so rubbish they're literally dying. Never mind, all we need to do is to get in some 'star' doctors, because they surely must make for 'star' patients. Get rid of the doctors that are currently treating our patients, and bring in a few people from channel 4 (Noel Edmonds, Jeff Stelling and the cast of shameless) to cure all. This sounds ridiculous, but it's a pretty close analogy.

5. Shows like this are nothing but education-lite. The real problems are so much more complex, and of course they start at home. Are we products of nature or nurture? Well, surely it's both, so much of the responsibility must lie with the parents. I think it's unlikely that we'll get any parental replacement during this series, but I know what most people would choose if offered bad parents or bad teachers. Responsibility for education should be shared between parents, the children themselves, the Schools, the teachers and the Government. We all have an important role to play.

6. If the show really wanted to look at the specific effects of teachers (which research shows can be as much as 4-fold in terms of pupil progress) what they could have done was to seek out those teachers that are genuinely inspirational. These are the 'star' teachers, and they can be found pretty easily. Just go to any School in the country and ask the pupils who they'd recommend. If every teacher in every School was as good as the best 20%, we'd probably make a massive difference. We could certainly see from a programme like this whether there is such a massive 'teacher effect'. For the record, I'm sure that there is, but channel 4 have decided to go down the ratings route rather than the educational route. They could have made a really interesting intelligent piece of TV, the effects of which could have resonated within the world of education in order to attract and produce effective teachers. Instead they have pandered to the maxim that celebrities guarantee ratings.

Jamie - please go back to doing what you know.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Never underestimate the significance of 'significant'

This is a line from 'Yes, Prime Minister', where the difference between the phrase 'no increase in taxes' is compared with 'no significant increase in taxes'. The point being made is that the simple inclusion of the word significant changes a very specific and attackable statement into something which is utterly defensible, bearing in mind that there is no definition in this case of the word significant.

I was reminded of this line when I watched the mess that is channel 4's '10 o clock show' last night. The one person that stands out from this car-crash is David Mitchell, the only person that seems comfortable with his role in the show, and consequently is able to flourish. David Mitchell was particularly excellent on the 10 o'clock show last night. I was rather critical of him in a previous post for the fact that he's become quite so ubiquitous, and particularly for his move from edgy ground-breaking comedy 'Peep-show' into hackneyed panel gameshows like 'would I lie to you?'. It seems that I had misjudged him though, and that this was in fact only a phase, and a necessary part of his metamorphosis into credible broadsheet columnist and political satirist. They say that all great comedy characters are rooted in the actor's own personality (think Hancock and David Brent), and it's clear that there's a fair amount of David Mitchell in Mark Corrigan, his character from 'Peep-show'. He seems far more comfortable in his suit on the '10 o clock show', floppy side-parting and all, riling politicians, bloggers and activists alike. He's really very quick-witted, acerbic enough without being rude, and the fact that he scarecely bothered concealing his contempt for Sally Bercow gave him a few more plus points. His own monologue to camera was the best bit of last night's show, and he raised three important points, namely:

1. How political choice is often dumbed down for the public into a simple choice between A (something that sounds good) and B (something that sounds bad).

2. The use of dramatic language to persuade the public of choice A.

3. The fact that the public themselves seem happy with this arrangement, and would rather be spoon-fed choices that are decided by others than to think things through for themselves.

To take point 1, and for those fans of 'critical thinking', this is a classic way to strengthen your argument. Offer only two choices, and make sure that one is un-chooseable. For the global warming argument, it's like offering only the choices of 'do something' or 'do nothing'. Doing nothing clearly leaves us open to the possibility of global destruction, so therefore we must do something, whilst we are left no options withint the 'do something' umbrella, and have de facto agreed with whatever the person presenting the choices has already discovered.

The use of dramatic language is a personal irritation, and though I love expressive language, I'd rather the Orwellian option of 'plus good' and 'double plus good' rather than the plaintives that get bandied around by politicians. Does something need to be done? Stick the word 'desperately' in front of the word need, and suddenly the public are on your side. This doesn't just appply to politics of course, it even permeates as low down as the fast food chain. Beef, tomato and lettuce in a bun? Sounds rank. Tender beef, juicy tomato, crisp lettuce in a fresh bun. Yum.

But it's not the fact that adjectives are used to sell products or to convince people of political ideology, it's the fact that we are perceived as being thick enough that these adjectives are all that's needed for us to be convinced. Sadly point 3 is true in most cases, and until we start to look beyond the simple soundbites and catchy phrases, we will continue to be treated this way. We can't continue to be fed politics in such straightforward bite-sized chunks, but we need someone to filter the information so that we don't end up in a catch-22 situation where there's so much information to digest that we can't process it to find out what's relevant. To be able to analyse and evaluate information is the most important skill of the C21; sadly too many papers offer more 'comment' than actual 'fact', and it seems that many people like to have the thinking done for them, either by the columnists or the politicians. It's just a case of working out who you think is most trustworthy, and then allowing them to tell you what to think. Despressing.

The '10 o clock show' is actually quite thought provoking. Sadly (Mitchell-aside), most of the thoughts it provokes are angry ones. I wonder why it's ok for Charlie Brooker to lambast Top Gear for its lazy racism about Mexicans but for his own show to poke fun at the Japanese for having funny sounding names. I wonder why they really felt that Lauren Laverne (one-time indie pop-pixie and 6 music DJ) was the ideal person to present a political show, but then seem afraid to let her do anything other than pre-recorded monologues. I wonder why when you're trying to demonstrate a show's political credibility by scheduling it at the same time as bbc QT, the guests are of the quality of Sally Bercow and Harry Cole.


Thursday, 17 February 2011

Dead Pool 2011

We're almost a couple of months into the new year, and the dust has well settled on my New Year's eve trivial pursuit and bollinger-sponsored ushering in of 2011. A new year gives one the chance to take stock, to re-appraise, to set one's priorities for the year ahead. These are very personal, specific, but above all, dull tasks to report, and hence it's my dead pool that you really want to hear about, don't you?

For the uninitiated, this is a marvellous parlour game for all the family. It's not exactly fast-paced, bearing in mind that you'll have to wait 365 days to find out who's won. But it's free, and you really do get out what you put in. Those who approach the game with a casual air of picking names out of a hat will rarely succeed, but those who spend hours engaged in careful research will find themselves richly rewarded.

So here's how you play. Decide how many names you're going to pick (everyone picks the same, and I'd suggest 8 for starters). This is the number of celebrities you are going to have to gamble that will die in the next year. You can pick them by order, and then you receive 8 points (on a sliding scale down to 1 point) for your number one choice. There's no rules that apply re: celebrity ages and health conditions, but you should be aware that though no points are awarded for flair picks, the sense of satisfaction one gains when a real gamble pays off can't be underestimated (think of the 15 year old Schoolboy Ben who picked out Freddie Mercury back in 1991, or those more up to date gamblers who went for Brittney Murphy a couple of years back).

I've posted my choices on twitter already, but this is my final selection. In case you feel that I've boobed by missing out a couple of obvious ones, I've refused to pick the following people:

Zsa Zsa Gabor: as much of a gimme as you can get; in fact, I'm not sure that she hasn't croaked already. She seems to be losing limbs at a rate of knots, and she'll have turned into some kind of OAP version of 'boxing Helena' well before the year is out. She's the dead pool equivalent of the 1 yard open-goal tap in, and hence is not one to be celebrated.

Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Kim Jong-Il: they may well all already be dead. Even if they are, or if they pop off during 2011, we'll never know about it, and as they get lowered into the ground, we'll still be assured that it's nothing more than a cold, and that it's a mere percautionary measure.

The list:

1. Bruce Forsyth: rapidly becoming a liability, even on saturday night snooze-fest strictly, and makes Paddy McGuinness look like a master of the auto-cue. Undoubtedly a trooper, but looks to be on borrowed time.

2. Kerry Katona: the 'I've got my life back on track' mantra isn't fooling me. You're still doing ads for Iceland, and you're only one batch of dodgy showbiz sherbert away from me being quids in.

3. Bob Dylan: this is more about gut-instinct. Health scares, limited output for the last few years and he must be getting on more than a bit. Still sings like he's listening to one of his own songs on an ipod, but that's not a reason to put him on the list on its own.

4. Gregg Wallace: sad to report this one, as no-one licks chocolate mousse from a spoon quite like Gregg. Have you seen him lately on Masterchef though? He looks like a barrow-boy who's eaten all his produce, and the barrow too. He's gaining weight in a hurry, and looks to be out like Atkins.

5. Terry Christian: can't believe he's still in work, but he also looks like a skeleton these days. Reminds me of the chap from the Stereo MCs.

6. Daphne Fowler: you know, the old one (oldest one?) from eggheads. Bit of a cheap pick, but can't see her getting through the winter.

7. Margaret Thatcher: she almost made it into my Castro etc list, though I suspect there'll be a few street parties when she heads up to the great trade union in the sky. Shame to see her go, but when you're too ill to have a cup of horlicks at your own party, the next 12 months look a very long way away.

8. James Corden: I'm not sure that being fat and a shamelessly un-funny England footballer suck-up qualifies our James to be a victim of the grim reaper at any time in the next 300 days or so, but wouldn't it be great? Wouldn't it?

So there you have mine. Who's in yours?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Taste, don't eat

There's really very little in the world that doesn't interest me. I like Art, food, wine, books, TV and film, travel, sport, History, science (my job), philosophy, 'take me out' and much more besides. I don't think this makes me a polymath, an expert on anything or even especially cultured, and perhaps reflects my low boredom threshold more than anything else. The thought of having a season ticket for sport is anathema to me; to know where you are going to be sitting for 20 saturdays every year takes a lot out of the fun of saturdays. I like everything to be something of a treat, like the cinema, a G+T or dropping into a gallery. I consider myself very much a 'dipper in to' rather than a 'fully paid up member of' where my interests are concerned. That's also true for my friends. All of my friends are more interesting when I haven't seen them for a while, and other than people with whom I work, I doubt I see any other friends more than once every few months. Stephen Fry said 'I like to taste my friends, not eat them'. Assuming that he wasn't talking literally, I like his sentiments.

I'm not sure that many people would agree with me. Most people I know like to have a close-knit group of friends, or at least a small circle they can class as their bezzies. These are the people you know on more than just a superficial level; they are the people to whom you can divulge anything. I wonder why we feel that we can't discuss (almost) anything with (almost) anyone. People you don't know so well are likely to give you more impartial advice on important matters, and the viewpoint of someone new must be of greater interest than someone whose thoughts you know before they open their mouth. New people are often no less fun than old friends, and when you like someone new, you know that you like them in the here and now, not that you liked them several years ago, and therefore have a bond that has become more to do with time than actually having anything in common.

I'm not sure that the same theory can be applied to people's interests. I think that most people like to be expert in a few areas rather than being mildly interested in quite a lot. If you're really into films, you've no chance of being caught out at a dinner party when you're unable to quote whole sections of the Coen brothers. If you're really into football, you can chat knowledgably in the pub for a couple of hours before the game of seasons gone by. I was out to dinner on saturday, and when David Mitchell was mentioned, I launched into a tirade about how ubiquitous he is on our screens, before then realising it was a different David Mitchell, who writes books, or makes films, or plays on the wing maybe. There's a class thing at work here too. Our interests almost seem to be pre-determined by the environment in which we exist. There were howls of horror at my posh boarding School when I professed my enthusiasm for American football recently (this is a classic example of something I love, but know very little about the rules). You're a snob if you're interested in wine, one of the uneducated masses if you prefer football to rugby, a nerd if you like science, thick if you watch 'take me out' and elitist if you like classical music. Bummer. I'm not sure why we seem so keen to pigeon hole ourselves into roles that are defined by others. I've just been watching the artist Simon Starling on the culture show, and was quite interested in his work. I'd probably go and see it if I was in St Ives. He's a Turner Prize-winning artist, and hence is in the elitist and snobbish bracket. But his concept was slightly interesting, quite simple, and probably quite interesting to far more people than will ever see it. His photo of a platinum mine in South Africa was nice enough to look at, and the fact that platinum had been used in the development of the photo was nicely cyclical. But this isn't an example of high Art, far removed from the comprehension and interest of the masses. It's just being presented as such. Because some Arty-types want to keep themselves clear of the social strata they feel is a notch beneath them, which is why Starling had a carefully chosen shabby-chic look about him, and talked as though he were uncovering the secrets of the universe when he showed his photos of the gallery's basement.

I'm pretty sure that Simon could do with a pint and a pie at the football, and I'm sure the fat bloke I sit next to at Palace could benefit from doing a bit of beard stroking down at St Ives. Or maybe no-one thinks like me, and that's the way I like it, because I'm desperate to be different. Isn't it all complicated?