When I was sixteen, I dropped out of school, and sank. We all have moments in our lives when we could have become very different people – but we hide from the memory, and banish all thought of our dopplegangers. Yet sometimes, we find them standing there, staring us in the face. For me, the memory of my lost year – and the lost life that might have followed it, if I hadn’t been lucky – was triggered by an unlikely source: Jamie Oliver.
In his new series on Channel Four, ‘Jamie’s Dream School’, the TV chef gathers together twenty disaffected kids who have dropped out of school with lousy GCSEs. He then asks some of the smartest people in Britain to teach and inspire them. Rankin teaches them photography; Cherie Blair teaches them about law; Ellen MacArthur teaches them yachting. And in the faces of the kids – alternately surly, abusive, unable to listen, and desperate to hear and to change – I can see my younger self snarling back at me.
The different teachers stage a crude laboratory-experiment in how to turn around the half a million kids like this in Britain. Some try aggressive discipline; some try sympathetic indulgence; and beneath this pedagogical-scattergun, the real answer becomes clear.
From the moment I started secondary school, I instinctively hated it. I remember on the first day being given a timetable, looking at it, and thinking: “Who are these people? How dare they tell me what I’ll be doing every Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock?” I’m sure I was as surly, hostile, and uncooperative as any of Oliver’s nightmare dream-kids. I loved to learn – I was always reading – but the act of being ordered to do it by cold, old adults killed it for me. They reacted to my need to be persuaded to be there with scorn; I became even more scornful; and this scorn-spiral led to mutual hatred. I was soon skiving off most days, and always on the brink of being expelled.
I spent most of my school-days in the arcades at the Trocadero Centre in central London. There, a United Nations of bunking kids from across the city would master Street-Fighter II , PacMan and Mario Kart, our version of the three Rs. Some of us were from poor families, some of us were from rich families. We were united by a refusal to be penned into a school system we hated, and a desire to get the Top Score that day. My parents are good people, but my father was in a different country, and my mother was very depressed. They were distressed by my behaviour, but they weren't really able to do anything about it.
So after my GCSEs, I dropped out. It felt like a relief, for me and for the school. Both my parents and my older brother had left school when they were even younger: it didn’t feel like a big deal. I spent that year in an electronic torpor. I played more video-games, I drank (and vomited up) a lot of Thunderbird with my friends, I watched a library-full of 1930s Hollywood movies with my gran, and read all of Roy Jenkins’ political biographies. When you are 16 and out of school, your vision of your own future shrivels, and what remains consists of fantasies of being “discovered”. (For some reason, I thought I was going to be an actor, even though I am utterly incapable of acting. Jamie's kids dream of the X-Factor, or other un-real reality rescues.)
Of the kids I hung out with then, some of us have gone on to be successful, and some have continued to sink. What was the difference? It wasn't intelligence: people smarter than me didn't make it. Nor was it determination, or decency, or discipline. It was something much simpler – and it is what the teachers at Dream School have found to be the key with their kids. It was forming a bond with a loving adult.
On a whim, I decided to try out a state sixth form college called Woodhouse in North London. Some instinct for self-preservation must have been there, buried beneath to jangle of falling coins and arcade jingles. I didn't expect to stay for long. But when I got there, something happened that I had never found in the education system before: there were teachers there who told me I was able, and could do well. They took the time to figure out why I was so resistant to their praise, and to find a way of teaching that would nurture me. (There were half-a-dozen who were amazing, but I’d like to name one in particular: Jacquie Grice.) Like Jamie’s kids, I was outwardly indifferent and unimpressed, and inwardly astonished.
I'm sure it wasn't easy to offer that first encouragement to a kid who acted like he didn't want or need it. But my sense of self began to change. I began to think of myself, for the first time, as somebody who was competent, and good at things. It was their encouragement and nurturing that turned my life around. It wasn't their specific teaching technique that mattered: some were strict, and some were soft. It was the emotional connection. My friends who got the loving connection got out; my friends who didn't were trapped. A few years later, at Cambridge University, I learnt the neuroscience behind this – but I lived it then.
You can see the same chemical process happening with Jamie’s kids. It’s most pronounced in the journey David Starkey, who is brought in to teach history, makes throughout the series. These kids associate schooling with being shouted at and told they are useless. One of them, Connor, summarises his school years this way: “When you're in the bottom group, they give you a book and you've got to copy out of it, and when you're finished, you've got to start again.” Another, Angelique, remembers being endlessly told, even at the age of sixteen, to stand facing the wall as a punishment. They respond by ignoring and attacking the whole process, until they have built up a thick mask of indifferent bravado.
Starkey interprets this as arrogance and excessively high self-esteem – “nobody has ever told them their behaviour is unacceptable” – and so test-rides the Daily Mail answer to badly behaved kids. He starts his first lesson by telling them: “You’re all here because you've failed.” He then tells them, in effect, to pull themselves together. When they reel back in anger, he snaps at Connor: “You're so fat you can barely move,” and later calls him “porcine. Which means pig-like.” He tried to verbally batter them into silent submission.
But far from hearing this for the first time, these kids have heard little else in their lives. Like the kids I knew at the Trocadero, several have been thrown out by their parents, and all have spent their school years being endlessly punished. Being scorned sends them back into a same-old spiral of shame and rage and a desire to hit anything in their path.
Starkey – who is a friend of mine – is too much an empiricist to continue in the face of such counter-veiling evidence. So, without quite admitting it, he shifts strategy. He remembers that what really fired his love of education was the one-on-one tutorials at Cambridge. He instinctively senses the process I am describing: the need for a personal bond. So he starts to see them individually, and says “we are getting to know one another.” Suddenly, it works. The kids begin to react. There can be discipline – indeed, the kids crave it, deep down – but first, before anything, there has to be a bond.
It's there when Rankin tells a kid thrown out by his parents that his photo is brilliant, and when the entrepreneur Alvin Hall tells a boy he’s great at maths. They then begin then to work – some, like I did, evangelically, like a plant finally given water and sunlight.
When the kids do form a bond in this way, it looks like they are physically changing live on camera. That's because they are. My friend Camilla Batmangelidgh is the head of Kid's Company, the organisation that takes in some of the most disturbed kids in London – and she has been at the forefront of explaining the neuroscientific evidence about how young, forming brains are literally transformed by strong bonds of affection.
We know from PET scans that when you a baby feels loved, it opens up new neuronal pathways. Your brain physically changes. Over time, your frontal lobes – the part of you that can anticipate problems, and think rationally – becomes much stronger. You can control yourself better. You can think rationally. For most of the dream-kids, being scorned and shouted at all their lives has physically weakened these parts of the brain. They don’t listen for long because they can’t listen for long. Only being loved – consistently, calmly, over time – can strengthen the parts of them that want to.
In the mid-1980s, the American sociologist David Olds selected 400 poor mothers in Minnesota to study. Half of them were given intensive support from health visitors to help them bond with their babies, and half of them were not. When he returned 15 years later, he discovered the children who had been helped to achieve a strong maternal bond were 50 per cent less likely to have been arrested. It’s harder to heal with love as a child ages – but it is still possible.
I'm not naïve about this. It’s a ferociously hard job to nurture and love kids like who behave in this way. On my visits to Kid’s Company, I've seen what Camilla and her staff have to do. A hard-faced, furious kid will turn up at one of their centres and yell abuse at them. They’ll take whatever’s offered, and in return tell you to fuck off. They’ll yell and steal. And because Camilla is calm, and consistent, and caring, over the years, the kids slowly develop trust – and the calm and patient power of her love transforms the physical structure of their brains. The more normal reaction is the one almost all the journalists who've written about it have taken to the kids on the show – to express disgust and revulsion and a desire for them to be hidden away.
The principle that matters most with kids, in the end, is E.M. Foster’s: only connect. It was a loving human connection, after that lost year, that turned my life around. This isn’t hippie hopefulness; it’s hard science. But can a principle so apparently nebulous be infused into our education system (and our young offender’s institutes, where it’s needed even more)? Can Ofstead check for bonding?
Starkey again stumbles in the series onto a guiding principle for how to achieve this, even though it contradicts the position he has taken noisily and aggressively for the past three decades. He says that the problem is piling up all these problem kids together: he points out that the group dynamic is a disaster, and brings out their worst features in the children. He’s right. If a teacher has one or two chaotic kids who need to be persuaded of the case for education in their class, or a school has a dozen, the kids around them create a group dynamic that discourages their bad behaviour – and if that doesn’t work, the school can give them personal attention. But if they make up a majority of the kids in front of you, it’s impossible. The group dynamic encourages chaos, you don’t have the time or energy to bond individually, and the school is guaranteed to descend into lightly-herded anarchy.
We call our schools “comprehensive”, but in fact – under both political parties – they are ruthlessly socially segregated. Across much of the country, the wealthy kids are bunched together in “good” schools, and the poor kids are penned off in “bad” schools. British kids are segregated by their parents’ house prices – the “catchment area” – and this is then made even worse by the grammar schools and private schools Starkey champions. So the left-over schools are made up of left-out kids like Jamie’s, or my Trocadero friends, and they have to climb a mountain every day to do the basics. Where there is a concentration of chaotic kids, the school will be chaotic.
There is an alternative – and it has been demonstrated best in, of all places, the city of Raleigh, North Carolina. Ten years ago, their school system was in a familiar mess, and they passed a simple law to try to solve it. No school could have more than 40 percent of its kids on free school meals, or 25 percent of who were a grade or more below their expected level in reading or maths. Suddenly, the kids who needed most help wouldn’t be lumped together. Kids like Connor and Angelique would be broken up and spread out across the school system, where schools could give them the attention they needed.
The results were startling. Within a decade, Raleigh went from one of the worst-performing districts in America to one of the best. The test scores of poor kids doubled, while those of wealthier children also saw a slight increase. Teenage pregnancies, crime and high school drop-out rates fell substantially. Conor and Angelique would have been in a playground where the dynamic discouraged their bad behaviour, and would have had teachers with the time to figure out what was wrong. They built a genuinely comprehensive school system – and it worked. Yet David Cameron is taking Britain in the opposite direction: look at how hard some of his new “free” schools have fought to keep council estates and poor kids out of their feeder schools. They will deepen segregation, not end it.
This would only be the first step though. I wasn’t at a school piled up with chaotic kids, and my school still failed me (and I, in turn, failed myself). What do you do then? The rapper Plan B has talked about how his educational misery-go-round was only ended when his school set up a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) – a calm place where he could be taken out of lessons to go to be given one-on-one attention by sympathetic and consistent teachers who wanted to hear why he was having so much trouble. Yet again, the loving bond with an adult transformed him.
When a child is seriously misbehaving, it should be a flashing light that they need a strong personal human connection – and ensure they are moved to a place where they can get it. It can be done. There were a few (too small) steps towards it under the last government: All over Britain, SureStart picked up poor babies and toddlers to help their mothers bond with them. PRUs massively grew. Voluntary groups like Kid’s Company were much better funded. Kids falling behind in schools were given guaranteed one-on-one tuition, in the program called Every Child A Reader. Now even those baby-steps towards baby-sanity are being dismantled by the Tories. The dream-school kids will wake up to discover the principles uncovered by their experiment were just that – dreams, passing unnoticed in the night.
Sometimes, in the middle of the day, alone, I go to the Trocadero centre, and play on the battered old ‘Street-Fighter II’ machine. Last time, I ran into one of the kids I used to hang out with when I was skiving. Like me, he's 32 now – but he’s still there in his electronic haze, pushing in the coins, aiming for nothing better than the highest score. What was the difference, in the end, between me and him? One thing, and one thing only. I found a loving bond with a nurturing adult – and he didn't.
For updates on this story from Johann Hari, follow him on Twitter at @JohannHari101