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Cherie Blair

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Read Cherie's Article in The Times on Jamie's Dream School

The Times, 19 February 2011

"One of the students called me posh. I said I’m from a working-class Liverpool family"

I wanted to get involved with the Dream School partly because I was intrigued by the idea and also because I like and respect Jamie Oliver. I like young people, too. My youngest son is 10 and I’ve brought up three who are in their twenties. I meet a lot of teenagers for my work, including young offenders, so I’m not easily shocked. I wasn’t particularly worried about anything that the students might say to me in class. If I wasn’t thick-skinned before my husband became Prime Minister, I certainly was by the end! My main concern was whether or not I had the skills for the job. Teaching is very hard and I didn’t want to let Jamie or my class down. I didn’t expect Dream School to work for all the children, but at least they had chosen to be there, which showed some willingness.

Before my lessons, I spoke to teachers I knew and drew up lesson plans.
For the first lesson, on the legal system, I decided to look at it through the case of Jimmy Mizen, the teenager who was murdered in southeast London three years ago, and I arranged for one group to visit the Mizen family to hear their views about the trial of the man accused of his murder.

I wanted the students to think about the structure of the trial, not only from the lawyer’s point of view, but from everyone’s — including family, friends and witnesses. Another group was to start on our second topic, human rights, which was around the right to wear religious symbols. I arranged for them to visit a hairdresser who had sacked a young Muslim woman for wearing a headscarf, and a Christian teacher who had been disciplined for wearing a crucifix.

I could see immediately that there were definitely some “alpha males” competing for the limelight. There was the whole girl/boy thing going on too, with couples pairing off. One of the girls, who was gay, I think, was very vocal and able to express herself.
One student called me “posh”, so I explained that I came from a working-class background in Liverpool. That led to questions about why I didn’t have a Liverpudlian accent. I didn’t deliberately lose my accent but my mother was an actress and liked me to talk “properly”. I’ve also lived in London for 30 years. I’m not sure the students believed me, though. They probably thought that anyone who is a QC or was married to the Prime Minister was “born posh”.

The students had been given cameras and encouraged to take photos of their experiences, including during classes. They had also been given permission to bring mobile phones into class, neither of which I would have allowed. So there was a fair amount of distracting activity, including running in and out of class to take phone calls. So I made a rule that anyone needing to leave had to take a particular route through the middle of the class, in front of everyone. One of the boys — who had been contributing well up to that point — simply walked out using the banned route, saying it was a “stupid rule”. The other students then made the point that he had to be punished, but before we could discuss what that punishment should be, he left the class. He was a bright young man, but I felt he needed to learn that you have to obey rules that have been agreed, even when they are arbitrary. You have to pick your fights. And I would have given him a second chance, to show that you can have discretion in punishment. That was probably the lowest point.

By the second lesson, the class seemed much more settled. My plan was to show them how a debate works, and how there have to be rules about participation so they didn’t all just talk over each other. I brought in my barrister’s wig and gown as props and ruled that anyone wanting to speak had to put on the wig first. Some did put it on; others just held it up. They seemed to find that mildly interesting!

The debate was to be on the right to wear religious symbols, but the producer of the programme asked me to focus on the issue of the right of prisoners to vote. The class then heard from John Hirst, a former prisoner, who argued the case in favour, and from the Chairman of the UKIP Youth Wing, who argued the case against. The students were divided on the issue, some making their points forcefully and rather well. This went on so long that we ran out of time to discuss much else.

The experience was tough and has left me with huge admiration for teachers. Few are “inspirational” but the majority do a good job. As an eight-year-old girl I went through my own pivotal educational crisis when my father left my mother very publicly, then announced the birth of my half-sister in the local newspaper. We lived in a strongly Roman Catholic community at a time when separation and divorce was a scandal, and I was subjected to unpleasant teasing and name-calling at school. I got into fights, became angry and rebellious and could easily have become disaffected. One of the teachers decided that I might be diverted from this self-destructive path by a challenge, so she arranged for me to skip what would be Year Five and go straight into Year Six and take the 11-plus early. It channelled my energies into schoolwork and gave me the belief that I could make something of myself. I was lucky to be helped in this way. Many of the students I was teaching I know come from far more challenging backgrounds and were not as fortunate.

One of my girls in my Dream School class has since come to visit me in my chambers, because she wanted to explore becoming a lawyer. If she goes back into education and then gets to university, she’ll be the first in her family to have done so — as I was. If I can help and support her through that, I will.