Bethan Marshall: Jamie's a good teacher, too

Click to follow

Much of the well-deserved hype surrounding Jamie Oliver's TV exposé of school meals has concentrated on the amount of junk food we serve our children in the dinner hall.

Much of the well-deserved hype surrounding Jamie Oliver's TV exposé of school meals has concentrated on the amount of junk food we serve our children in the dinner hall. But there are other more wide-reaching lessons to be learned from his series. Throughout his year in schools, we glimpsed what education could and should be like. For Jamie Oliver is not just a gifted chef, he is also a good teacher. His whole approach exemplified what good, child-centred, progressive teaching looks like.

David Blunkett, like many critics before him, once described progressive teaching as an "anything-goes philosophy". John Dewey, one of the leading proponents of child-centred learning at the beginning of the last century, countered similar attacks by claiming that, on the contrary, progressive education demanded "high organisation based on ideas".

And that is precisely what you got from Jamie Oliver. Far from an anything-goes approach, he was always clear about his aim, his big idea. At no point did he compromise this vision with anyone. Not with the politicians, not with the council, not with the dinner ladies, not with the parents and, most important, not with the children. His demands were not about doing what he said but about understanding why the transformation was so vital. What made the series inspiring was not witnessing celebrity chef megalomania but the education of a community, of which he became a part and learnt from as well.

In the best child-centred tradition, he started where the pupils were and organised a range of experiences to help them "progress". He involved them in cooking for themselves; he negotiated menus with them; he gave them responsibility for testing, sampling and marketing his products and, most memorably, he shocked them into seeing what went into a chicken nugget and a Turkey Twizzler. As one hardened junk food addict was forced to confess, having seen the ingredients: "It's not real food."

But Jamie Oliver did even more than this. In a number of the primary schools in which he worked, they organised a food week. During this week, through cooking, writing poems, designing posters and learning about food, the children engaged in the traditional disciplines of chemistry, English, art, biology and geography. At no point did he simply say "Do this because I tell you to" or even "Do this because it's good for you". For the pupils to be truly educated, they had to be fully engaged and understand why their diets needed changing. Telling them to eat their greens was not enough.

Jamie Oliver created a learning environment of which Dewey would have been proud. In one of his earliest works, School and Society, Dewey describes his ideal school. Interestingly, one of the key areas of the school is the kitchen. He eloquently makes the point that through what he calls "practical education" children can be guided to other more traditional areas of the curriculum such as history or science.

The book, based on a series of lectures, is in part a response to how what we might now call vocational education was conceived of at the time. While valuing the mechanical skills in the crafts, Dewey believed that the parameters set in the schools of the day were far too narrow and missed the opportunity to extend the children's thinking. The type of projects he advocated bear a strong resemblance to Oliver's food weeks. As does his belief in the importance of the local community.

Dewey would have understood Oliver's passionate belief in using local produce and his desire to help children understand where the food came from. He would also have lauded the way in which Oliver worked alongside and learnt from the community he served.

In the election rush to jump on a popular bandwagon the Government should learn more lessons from Jamie Oliver's programmes than nutritional ones. He showed us how simple activities such as peeling vegetables can link us to a world of science and geo-politics, if they are taught in a progressive manner rather than as a list of skills to acquire - so demonstrating the nonsense of separating the vocational from the academic curriculum. But, above all, he reminded us of the power of education to transform by engaging in big ideas.

The writer is a lecturer in education at King's College, London