All-star classroom: Jamie Oliver's latest TV show sees high-achieving celebrities become teachers

Can Simon Callow and Cherie Blair convince teenagers who have failed their GCSEs that school can be cool? Gerard Gilbert meets the tutors with a difference

He's had a go at sorting out school dinners. Now Jamie Oliver wants to tackle the schools themselves. The crusading chef wants to know why the education system is failing that half of the secondary school population – 300,000 pupils last summer – who left school with fewer than five GCSEs at grade C to A*.

Oliver himself left his Essex comprehensive in 1991 without any qualifications. "I was a special needs kid," is how he puts it. "I was never one of the bright ones and I did feel as if the school let me down."

So could learning-for-exams and rigid curriculums be heading the way of the Turkey Twizzler? Next week Oliver presents his new Channel 4 series, Jamie's Dream School, which aims to get to the heart of the problem by bringing together well-known high achievers such as Dr David Starkey and Professor Robert Winston, to teach a class of 20 teenagers from different backgrounds.

"The one thing the students have in common is that they've all flunked their GCSEs big styley, like me," says Oliver. "It's probably going to be an absolute madhouse but if we can inspire the kids that's all that matters."

The stellar common room not only includes Starkey, who's teaching history needless to say, and Winston, who's teaching science, but also Cherie Blair (law), Alastair Campbell (politics), Alvin Hall (maths), Simon Callow (drama), Rolf Harris (art), Jazzie B (music), Professor Mary Beard (classics), Daley Thompson (sport) and Rankin (photography).

The former poet laureate Andrew Motion, Wire actor Dominic West, rapper Tinchy Stryder and yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur also pitched in with lessons.

As the commentary on next Wednesday's opening episode describes them, they were: "Twelve people with nine degrees, ten world records, three Grammies and a couple of Olympic golds."

Cynics might argue that the experiment is another headline-grabbing TV stunt by brand Jamie Oliver, but might there actually be some serious lessons here for educationalists?

Certainly the steepest learning curve was that experienced by the temporary teachers, all of whom were united in admiration for those whose day job this is.

I caught up with Cherie Blair, Simon Callow, financial journalist Alvin Hall and broadcaster and Cambridge classics don Professor Mary Beard to discover what drew them to the project?

"Jamie proposed the inarguable thought that a lot of people leave school without qualifications because they don't have an inspiring teacher", says Callow, who had the task of making Shakespeare seem relevant to the underachievers. "It's a naive idea... a lot of what Jamie says is naive, but sometimes it needs to be said."

Cherie Blair and Mary Beard saw the series as a challenge. "I've done a bit of teaching at university level, but to be a schoolteacher to a classroom of kids who don't want to be there is a real challenge and I wondered if I could do it," says Blair, while Beard says: "I thought it would be cowardly not to. You spend your life going round the world telling people Latin is really interesting and important, so I had to put my money where my mouth was."

Both Blair and the American financial expert Hall had personal experience of inspirational teachers – in 1960s Liverpool and Florida respectively. "There was one teacher who really saved me," says Blair. "When I was eight and my mother and father had split up in a very public way... it was a huge scandal in 1963 Catholic Liverpool... I got into fights. One teacher took me from what would now be year-four and said next year you're going into year-six to do your 11-plus. That gave me the idea that I could rise above difficulties."

When Hall was 13 he won a place on Project Upward Bound, part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, which helped impoverished students get a leg up. "I remember vividly how the teachers in that programme were instrumental in opening my mind up to possibilities," he says.

The thrust of Oliver's TV series is that half the student population aren't engaging with their lessons, and the particular challenge of his "dream teachers" was to find a way of grabbing their pupils' attention. David Starkey brought in some of the recently discovered Saxon treasure known as the Staffordshire Hoard, while Simon Callow considered bringing in something equally valuable – a copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. "And then I realised it would mean nothing to them at all. The single most thrilling thing for them was going to the Globe on the South Bank. And Connor, a brilliant but rather difficult boy, strode straight to the foot of the stage and declaimed: "Two 'ouseholds, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we set our scene...' (the prologue to Romeo and Juliet). It was quite extraordinary."

Blair brought in her barrister's wig and gown for the pupils to wear while taking part in a debate, explaining: "I was there as a lawyer, so I took my wig and gown along. When they wanted to make a contribution to the debate they had to put my barrister's wig on. I thought it might amuse them and indeed it did."

Professor Beard chose David Beckham's tattoos. "Among his many tattoos he has some in Latin," she says. "One of them is Posh's birthday in Roman numerals. The Beckham chest is actually full of little bits of the classical world."

Grabbing the teenagers' attention was one thing – maintaining order was another. "I was really surprised at the extent to which the kids could talk back in language that was so shocking to me," says Hall, who had a fight break out within 30 seconds of starting his maths class. "I think it's because they feel there are no consequences to their actions. I can't imagine what my mother would have done to us if we had shown disrespect to the teacher in any way."

"It was basically like walking into a cage of chimpanzees," says Callow. "The absolute sort of uncontrolled energy is just frightening. I'm very used to standing in front of audiences, but they're extremely well behaved. Here it was gladiatorial, you just had to justify your existence."

So did they manage to successfully teach anything? "I managed to get so far as to establish the difference between a metaphor and a simile," says Callow. "Actually one of them turned out to be a natural actor of just great brilliance in my view – Henry Gatehouse is his name – and when stood on the stage at the Globe something quite extraordinary happened to him... he knew it."

Professor Beard also reports a partial success. "After three lessons I said I'd like them to read a Latin poem and half of them did," she says. "What surprised me is the fact that what interested them most was the etymology, that loads of English words came from the Latin."

And what did the teachers learn from the experience? "That we have to be more imaginative about what we do with kids who are dropping out of school," says Blair. "I'm an education lawyer and we have done cases about kids who have been excluded from school and we tried to do that with pupil referral units, but the problem with pupil referral units is they tend to play to the lowest common denominator. I actually think the idea of moving towards a more vocational based training may well be one of the answers."

"Smaller classes would help," says Hall. "And I think perhaps teachers could be given more latitude, rather than teaching towards an exam. You should have the flexibility to tap into students' interests."

And Callow says he grew very fond of his "cage of chimpanzees".

"They are sharp, bright, bright kids. It wasn't a lack of intelligence that stopped them getting any sort of qualification, it was evidently a massive inability to concentrate."

But what did the students make of it?

Two major factors came out of talking to Jenny and Aysha, students on Jamie's Dream School – they wanted less theory and more practical instruction and they wanted to be treated more like adults.

"My teachers would talk down to you a lot, and they expect you to respect them straight away," says 16-year-old Jenny, who left school with six Ds, an E and a U in her GCSEs. "At Jamie's school they talked to you like you were adults. And we did a lot of hands-on, practical stuff... I didn't really do any of that at school. It's all exam-based."

Aysha, 17, who left school with just three GCSEs, agrees. "Some secondary teachers were really good but others didn't have love for what they were doing. They would say "here's a text book" and they would be on Facebook... Most of the [Jamie] classes we did were practical, and if it wasn't practical they would make the written work so enjoyable that we would want to do it. I've never seen a bunch of teenagers want to get up in the morning... 6am in the morning... just to go to school. At school we couldn't even wake up at nine o'clock... it just goes to show we really did enjoy it."

Jenny is now working in the kitchens of Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant in Covent Garden, London, while Aysha, having been shown round her barrister's chambers by Cherie Blair, is retaking her GCSEs with the hope of reading law at university. Oh, and becoming a professional dancer.

Jamie's Dream School starts on Channel 4 on 2 March

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