Jamie' dream head, John d'Abbro, reveals his TV motivation – 'the missing 47%'
John d'Abbro and Jamie Oliver'TV head' John d'Abbro with 'chair of governors' Jamie OliverWhat if your staffroom is home to household personalities like Cherie Blair, Professor Robert Winston, Jazzie B, Daley Thompson and Rolf Harris? Not only are they teaching 20 challenging young people aged 16-18 who have not got the best out of their own education, but your TV school is being exposed to millions of viewers through the fishbowl prism of ‘reality TV’?

That was the daunting credibility challenge taken on by John d’Abbro, 'headteacher' of Channel 4’s forthcoming Jamie’s Dream School series. “It was, and still is a nightmare as well as a pleasure,” says John d’Abbro. “But whatever the challenge – and on one occasion I was reduced to tears – I could always rely on backing from my ‘deputy’, Jamie Oliver.

What celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and John d’Abbro, executive headteacher of the New Rush Hall Group in east London, have in common is real empathy with students emerging from school poorly equipped to deal with record levels of youth unemployment – 1 in 5 (and for graduates too). And that's the key theme that John d’Abbro, who works with pupils with emotional and behavioural difficulties, fears could be sidelined by the tabloid media free-for-all that inevitably accompanies a Channel 4 ‘reality‘ production (it has already started with a vitriolic article in The Telegraph by historian David Starkey). “The fact is that 47 per cent of kids are leaving school without 5 A-Cs,” says John d'Abbro, “and, given that we're saying that this is the gold standard, that means that nearly 50 per cent of our kids simply aren’t getting there.

'We need to look at more flexible ways of recording kids' achievements'

“I don't think all the kids are getting it wrong; I think some of what is wrong is the systems of assessment that we are using and we need to look at more flexible ways of recording kids' achievements, outcomes and performance rather than just 5 A-Cs. So I'm not saying that we shouldn't have five A-Cs, but five A-Cs isn't a good measure of how creative you are or how flexible you are or what your social skills are, how well you can get on with people and how well we have equipped you for life. I should say that I do believe in standardised testing, but with more flexibility than we now have –  ie that just because you are 16 you do GCSEs. Some youngsters are ready before that and some later.

"Current assessment is about how well we have equipped young people for a certain minority of jobs in the work sector. So we have got to move away from this model where we just see school as educating for jobs. We should be educated for life, and what attracted me to doing Jamie’s Dream School was that I fancied working with some people I respect, not least of which is Jamie as a person. who is trying to do a lot of good things and is using his position to do that. which I think is important for people like him.”

The seven-part 'reality documentary' series, which starts this week (Wednesday March 2, 9pm), harnesses some of Britain’s most inspirational personalities to see whether they can inspire 20 school ‘refusers’ to return to education and give it a second chance.

Jamie OliverLike John d’Abbro, Jamie Oliver’s own route to success included some difficult issues with education (he left school at 16 with two GCSEs), which is why he would like schools to change more children's lives. “I’ve seen with many of the kids at Fifteen [his charitable venture to support unemployed young people] that if you can find something that sparks someone’s passion, they’ll absolutely embrace it,” says Jamie Oliver.

“Not everyone’s into cooking, of course, so what we’re trying to do with Dream School is to provide loads of different academic subjects and some fantastic teachers so that there’s something inspiring for all the young people, whether it’s politics or history or sport or music. It’s fascinating to watch the kids in different lessons and see what switches them on.”

Jamie's Dream School might have been created for TV – who else would have inflicted a uniform on recalcitrant young adults for the sake of 'continuity'? – but it functioned as a real school, encompassing the central tenets of teaching and learning. There was even nominal ICT and the virtual learning environment (VLE) familiar with London schools – Fronter – although it will be interesting to note just how many teachers are able to use it.

However, it's enough of a challenge to create a new school without ensuring that all the teachers were ICT literate, which would have been a fascinating experience for John d'Abbro who is also an Apple Distinguished Educator. But John’s biggest concern was to ensure the educational credibility of the project.

'This is TV and I had never done it before'

"It’s natural in this situation that the TV guys are trying to make a television programme, while my total focus is on making this the best educational project I can," he says. "There's one bit where I break down in tears after two weeks, where I am at my wits' end. Looking back I was trying to do things on my own and it was only after two weeks that they realised I needed more support and gave me some additional teachers [his own head of school, Maureen Smyth, from New Rush Hall, also came in to provide professional support].

"I work hard, and I like working hard, but it was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I hope the series shows the kids getting it right – because a lot of kids got it right for most of the time – and not just the bits where it went wrong. The same goes for the teachers too.

"This is TV and that was new to me.  Of course sometimes some of the students played to the camera, and some things had to be done for the purposes of television and not just education – it’s vital that you build a trusting relationship with people in that kind of situation."

John d'AbbroJohn d'Abbro: 'I hope the series shows people what a great job teachers do'But is there a creative tension between making compelling television and staying true to education principles? “Obviously it’s something I am concerned about and the last thing I want is for the project to be seen as doing a disservice to teaching or trivialising the issues.  But I hope the series shows people what a great job teachers do and brings the issue of so many kids being written off as failures to a broader audience who might not otherwise engage with it.

Support through the initial teething problems was provided by Jamie Oliver. "The kids bought in because of Jamie initially – and I needed his support in making it work. If he hadn't supported me it wouldn't have worked. I think that is one of the best things he did. I couldn't have done it without him, and also without support of some of the production team

Daley ThompsonDaley Thompson: role model"That was one of the great things about it. I got to work with some outstanding camera people, sound recordists, chefs, behind-the-scenes people who were prepared to go beyond the call of duty and to be so creative. Jamie was my chair of governors although he preferred to refer to himself as my deputy."

John d'Abbro also got to work with one of his own heroes, Daley Thompson, whose photo has pride of place in a gallery of role models on the wall of his own office. So did he learn much from his temporary school? "I learnt things from the kids, loads of things," he says. But just as important, the experience reaffirmed many of his beliefs about learning.

"Yes, it reaffirmed what I have always felt about relationships being at the core of things, and that if you treat people reasonably at the starting point they will nearly always treat you reasonably back. Also, as Carl Rogers put it, you can't really teach people anything – you can only provide them with environment in which they will learn. It's true. And that learning is a risky business – you have to be prepared to take risks."

Even though many of Jamie's teachers had no experience in a classroom, they made headway with their learners as soon they began to establish relationships. What also became clear was that good communication skills are a valuable advantage to start out with, as will emerge in the programmes. John d'Abbro hopes that, as well as alerting the public to the challenge of the 47 per cent of learners who are failed by the education system, Jamie's Dream School will also help them appreciate teachers and see that it's not a job that anyone can do.

Most important of all, he wants to  see people take a fresh look at education and the obvious features that need changing. He points out that even our three-term system is based on days when the UK was agricultural and longer summer holidays were advantageous for bringing in the harvest: "But we don't have that system any more. So why don't we have a four-term year, or even two? What's logical about having a six-week break in a learning programme?"

However, it's assessment that's at the root of the problems John d'Abbro identifies. It's time for change. "It's not about change for the sake of change," he says, "because lots of kids really enjoy school and do well by our existing method of assessment. All I want are some other forms of assessment other than your traditional exams, because while they work for some kids they don't work for all of them.

"Motivation is a big part of it, and belief and hope.You have to give kids hope. For the kids in the programme the hope was that if they did their portfolios they could get a scholarship [YouTube provided £250,000 financial support for further study]. The kids who didn't want to learn were prepared to go through something if they thought there was something for them at the end of it that was worthwhile having, ie the scholarships.

'In some ways our education system is, for a lot of kids, bankrupt'

"What's really important is the debate we need to have. In some ways our education system is, for a lot of kids, bankrupt. They have no chance of jobs as we know them, they have no chance of pensions as we understand them, so we have got to find a way of educating children for 21st century life and not just for jobs and actually say, 'In the future you are going to need different skills to get you through the world.' Imagine the scenario – you are 16 and leaving school now, in the current economic climate, without any qualifications, no prospect of a job, no prospect of a life. What resilience and skills are you going to need to survive for the rest of your life and have a decent sense of well-being?'

"Part of the role of our education system should be about giving kids hope, and actually for lots of kids it doesn't do that at the moment. For lots of kids there's no hope and that is why they don't buy into the system. 'Work hard at school and get a job' isn't the case any more is it?"

'The focus should be on learning and not teaching'

Another problem he identifies is the reluctance to keep the focus on learning rather than teaching. "We don't actually give enough credence to our creativity and our uniqueness as individuals and the limited time we have on this earth," he continues. "In a real education system, and this may sound airy fairy to some, my uniqueness can only be made manifest if I recognise your uniqueness, and my success can only be gauged by your success. Much like the South African principle of 'ubuntu': 'I am what I am because of who we are.'

"Despite the rhetoric in the UK, we're not really into lifelong learning that can prepare us for doing different things at different parts in our lives; it's a much more industrial kind of education system."

With the Coalition Government and education secretary Michael Gove MP promising the biggest education shake-up in generations, isn't this the ideal time to bring in the changes he advocates? While John d'Abbro welcomes Michael Gove's promises to slash away unnecessary bureaucracy – "In some ways I'm a bit of an old-fashioned, traditional disciplinarian so I like structure and discipline. I don't have any problems with that" – he points out some of the contradictions becoming apparent. Like wanting children to have higher standards of literacy while simultaneously closing down hundreds of local libraries. And industry asking for employees with more character and better "21st century skills" which the curriculum doesn't fully support.

"You have to understand that not all kids learn best by sitting at a desk. We all learn differently but many schools don't recognise that, and this is why teaching is such a difficult job. A teacher might have 30 children in a class, and parents' aspirations for them are so much higher than they used to be, and yet we are expected to tailor the experience to the middle of the road. Or for the most able or for the less able. What's amazing is that  some people get there despite their schooling.

'A lot of what politicians stand for misses the point in this area'

"Our education system works for loads of kids and it's hard to express this in context. I'm actually quite conservative rather than radical, but I think it's important to have the emphasis on learning rather than teaching. I think you will have more successful outcomes.

"There is a lot in what Michael Gove is saying. For lots of kids education works, and I totally endorse that. But equally, for lots of kids it's not working and that's why we have got to look at it differently. The system isn't totally broken. A lot of young people are happy at school, enjoy school and more than 50 per cent come out of it with 5 or more A-Cs. However, 47 per cent don't, and a lot of what current politicians stand for misses the point in this area.

"We need to look at why so many kids are leaving school dissatisfied, unhappy and with reduced life chances because they don't have 5 A-Cs. The answer isn't to try to make the other 47 per cent get 5 A-Cs. We need to do something radical because in the future we are going to need a mixture of people who are intellectual, who are vocational, who are well-rounded individuals and are able to be flexible and adapt. I wouldn't be where I am today if I had come through the current system.

"We have got to explode this myth of 'Do well at school and you'll get a good job,' because it just isn't true. I think it's about making kids feel that they belong, and that they belong in the system. This is the real challenge for the future. How are we going to make sure that everyone feels included when so many feel isolated?"

Jamie's Dream SchoolJamie's Dream School: 'Learning is a risky business – you have to be prepared to take risks'

Photos: Jamie Fry

Jamie's Dream School starts this Wednesday, March 2, at 9pm

The teachers
The science teacher is Professor Robert Winston, history is taught by Dr David Starkey, politics by Alastair Campbell, drama by Simon Callow, music by Jazzie B, art by Rolf Harris, maths by Alvin Hall and sport by Olympic gold-medallist Daley Thompson.
Other experts include former poet laureate Andrew Motion, hip hop vocalist Tinchy Stryder, sailor Ellen Macarthur, photographer Rankin, barrister Cherie Blair, actor Dominic West, classics professor Mary Beard, explorer David Hempleman Adams, environmentalist Jane Poynter, school dinner lady Nora Sands and former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan.

Alongside the TV series, YouTube has launched a project to celebrate real-life teachers.  Dream Teachers – http://youtube.com/dreamteachers - invites teachers to upload their own inspiring ways to teach some of the toughest GCSEs

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