Last Night's TV: Jamie's Dream School/Channel 4
Kidult – Cuban Punch-Up: the Boys Who Fought for Castro/BBC4
Thursday 31 March 2011
Things at Jamie's Dream School continue to be nightmarish from any conventional view of educational progress. But if you jettison all thoughts of discipline, control and purposive movement there are beginning to be glimmers of light. As last night's episode demonstrated, it is actually possible to tear the mask of torpid disaffection off these faces and replace it with something more animated and even hopeful. Which is, surely, good news, even if some large questions remain about the wider practical application of this experiment's findings. One shudders to think how some sections of the press would react to the strategy Robert Winston had settled on to secure his class's interest in reproductive biology. "Robert Winston's hands-on science class is reaching it's climax," was how the voiceover put it (why settle for one innuendo when you squeeze two into the sentence?), but a blunter description would be curricular handjobs. Two of the class had been sent off with a lads' mag to produce sperm samples, so that Winston's nifty projecting microscope (what proportion of an ordinary school's budget might that consume?) would have something to magnify. Gloomy eugenicists may have noted that the results seemed to be of excellent quality. Then sea urchins were issued to everyone in class for another exercise in erotic stimulation. Apparently, if you jiggle a male sea urchin you can persuade it that the time is right for spawning, a fact that caused some excitement in class. "I made a sea urchin come!" yelled one girl. Not a big draw on a CV, I would have thought, but still evidence that she could be engaged by something other than the latest text message.
There may also be something in here for professional teachers, enduring the implicit insult of the concept, which is that charisma is all that is missing from the education system. The episodes so far have categorically disproved that, I would have thought, as celebrity teachers floundered and despaired. But there are some interesting studies of how authority can operate with unruly students. Jamie himself is an absolute natural, I think. "Yer all right, darlin?" he asked casually as he passed a pupil in the corridor, but that easy familiarity with the students doesn't translate into a collaboration with their lack of discipline. "You know the drill, guys," he said at the beginning of a lesson, pointing at the large mixing bowl into which he wanted his pupils' mobile phones deposited. His manner suggested that he was merely reminding them of something they'd collectively signed up to, and that he had no anxiety about their not complying.
Cherie Blair, by contrast, reacted to classroom hubbub with a nervous "settle down", every intonation suggesting that things were getting out of hand. And poor old Simon Callow is still speaking the wrong language entirely, a bit like an Englishman abroad, convinced that if he just slows up and enunciates more clearly the natives will eventually get it. Urging focus on the chronically fuzzy, he came up with an elaborate metaphor to do with circus acrobats and the importance of teamwork, a donnish image that only gave the disruptive more to work with. "My human pyramid is faltering, you know that?" said one girl cheekily, after her classmates started talking. Even Callow, though, got a little epiphany when he finally did what he should have done first, taking his drama refuseniks to the Globe theatre and letting them strut and fret through a fight scene in Romeo and Juliet. It was a shambles, but it was an engaged and interested shambles. Along with the diving class conducted by Daley Thompson (another natural), it underlined one of the truths the series has displayed – that you can have arrogance without having confidence, and supplying the latter makes the former diminish.
They have some minor problems with discipline at the Havana boxing school that was the subject of Kidult – Cuban Punch-Up: the Boys Who Fought for Castro but nothing terribly serious. Santos, one young contender, has been sneaking off to the local pie shop to buy empanadas, thus endangering his hopes of staying at fight weight and Junior came back late from the weekend because his parents were splitting up. Given the atmosphere of machismo and ideological rectitude ("Comrade athletes, are you ready to start training?" shouted the coach as they start their pre-dawn routine), you might have expected these infringements to have been met with stern brutality, but one of the most touching things about Andrew Lang's film was how suffused with emotion and empathy it was.
That this is a poor country was obvious. The dorm was rudimentary and the gym even more so. In one corner you could see boys whaling away at a punchbag constructed from old car tyres, an object that had been polished to a high gloss by repeated pummelling. The urgency of their desire to do well came not only from an (apparently) unquestioning commitment to El Jefe Fidel, but also from the knowledge that boxing might be their only way up and out of poverty. But the familial sense of shared endeavour seemed absolutely genuine. When the team sheet was read out for the national championships, the successful candidates were instructed to console the tearful losing ones, and when a teammate lost his bout he was immediately surrounded by supportive friends. Even the coach got in on the act, seeking out his defeated rival to give him a sympathetic hug. If you were looking for a dream school, this one seemed like a reasonable candidate.
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