Has Jamie bitten off more than he can chew?

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Jamie Oliver rules, okay? Sometimes, it seems the man can do no wrong either in the kitchen or out. But has he bitten off more than he can chew by crossing over to our patch, that minefield of lost hopes and reputations that is further education?

Tuesday night television viewers will know that for his latest bit of culinary alchemy, Jamie is attempting something far more difficult than turning meat and vegetables into stew. For he must now take leaden "yoof" of the unemployed, unmotivated, unco-ordinated variety, and transform them into golden chefs, skilled enough to work unsupervised in his glittering new restaurant.

Albeit that he has the help of a team of experienced college catering staff, his task is not an easy one. I know. I have been there. Well, not quite in the heat of the kitchen, but it was hot enough just being in the classroom when I had my brush with the craft level caterers.

I was green then, and full of the kind of youthful optimism that says anyone can be made to like English classes if you just treat them right. Imagine: 20-plus kids with a grievance against "skool" and anything that reminded them of it.

That was the place where they had failed. And it was because of school that the course they were now on was variously described as foundation or entry level or "basic", as we were more likely to call it back in those pre-euphemistic days.

Cooking was going to change all that for them. That's what they had signed up to a college course for. So in they come, ready to be kitted out with check trousers and a funny white hat, and then (and this was the bit they were really waiting for) with their own set of state-of-the-art knives and cleavers.

And then someone tells them they are going to have to do - English! And in I come, stupid smile all over my face, to confront a score of maladjusted 17-year-olds each with their own particular grievance, and each with easy access to a super-sharp machete, capable of cleaving flesh from bone with a casual flick of the wrist.

As I remember, they learned very little. I, on the other hand, learned a lot, particularly about watching my back. After a while we came to a compromise of the"I won't bother you if you don't bother me" variety.

The room I taught them in was one of those specialist classrooms - old-fashioned even by the standards of the 1970s - known as the Domestic Science Suite. That meant it had a bed in it. As the craft caterers came in both genders, I had a constant battle on my hands to prevent them from turning that "entry level" label into reality.

But to return to Jamie. He, too, has been learning something from his new charges. For instance, even if you show them how to do a thing, shout at them a bit and then ask them to do it themselves, they won't necessarily get it right first time.

And then there's the little problem of getting them to come to college (and on time) in the first place. To Jamie's surprise, kids who all their lives have seen themselves as losers are not able to transform themselves into winners overnight. For all that they are on TV and have bright futures pencilled in for them, turning "can't do" into "can do" will take time.

In one scene we see Jamie struggling to come to terms with a girl who's good at her work but can't be bothered to turn up at college very much. If only she'll agree to come, Jamie says he will send a taxi round for her. So, all we need now is to get the LSC to put cab fares into the budget and our problems will be solved.

The big question the programme asks is: can he do it? Can he really turn his bunch of 15 no-hopers into trained chefs in time for the opening of his new posh noshery? Those of us who do such things for a living know that the answer is likely to be both yes and no. After all, don't we manage to work the alchemist's magic every year ourselves? Turning raw, hesitant individuals into confident and autonomous learners?

At least we do it with some. Others will inevitably fall by the wayside - for all the daily berating we receive about "retention and achievement".

So that's good enough for us. But will it be good enough for golden boy Jamie? We can only watch and see.

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