February 13, 2011
Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef and campaigner, has branded British children as "wet", compared with the young Eastern Europeans he employs in his restaurants.
His comments came as he prepared to broadcast his latest ambitious project: running a school for a selection of failing pupils, with the help of some celebrity teachers.
In the interview with a The Observer newspaper he revealed that he was interested in setting up a free school, the controversial idea being pioneered by Michael Gove, the education secretary.
Dream School, due to air next month on Channel 4, films 20 pupils who left school a the age of 16 with fewer than five GCSEs at grade A to C, as they enter a new institution run by Oliver, who hopes to motivate them into continuing their education.
However, he said that he was astonished by the attitude of many of the children, who even if they possessed little academic ability were unwilling to undertake hard, physical work.
He said: "I am an employer of 350 chefs, and when it comes to the 16- to 20-year-olds we see at the moment, I've never experienced such a wet generation. I'm embarrassed to look at British kids. You get their mummies phoning up and saying: "He's too tired, you're working him too hard" – even the butch ones.
"Meanwhile, I've got bulletproof, rock-solid Polish and Lithuanians who are tough and work hard. Physical graft and grunt is something this generation is struggling with."
Oliver himself left school with just two GCSEs, but said that by the age of 13 he had experienced plenty of 15 hour days working in his father's pub.
"When you're unleashing students into an economy where there's trouble with jobs, the ones who haven't got academic verve, they need to have a basic approach to physical work," he said.
He is not the first public figure to despair about the drive of the nation's school leavers.
Sir Terry Leahy, the chief executive of Tesco, the country's biggest private sector employer, stuck a nerve when 18 months ago he said standards were "woefully low" at many state schools, leaving businesses to "pick up the pieces", forcing them to train school leavers with "basic skills".
At the time his comments were backed up by the head of Asda, who said some of his workers lacked basic reading and maths skills.
Oliver, who has an impressive track record at campaigning on food issues, especially with his 2005 series on school food, hopes that his latest programme will help highlight how difficult it is to inspire struggling children at school.
He has persuaded David Starkey, the historian to teach history; Simon Cowell to teach drama; the former poet laureate Andrew Motion to teach English. Other personalities involved include Cherie Blair, the wife of the former prime minister and a barrister; Daley Thompson, the double gold Olympic medal winner and Lord Winston, the scientist, who attempts to fire up his science class by dissecting a pig.
Oliver said most of celebrities underestimated how tough it was to teach. "All of us very quickly had a lesson in how hard it is to be a secondary school teacher in the UK today," he said.
He added that he was seriously considering opening a Free school, a new idea being pioneered by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. They are set up and run by parents, teachers, charities and voluntary groups, but have attracted criticism for creating social divisions within communities.
"When I'm more financially robust, I would definitely think about it. Ultimately, it's about an inspirational head teacher, employing a brigade of teachers with a really clear, single-minded approach that is relevant to the area; you know you're investing in gold. I wouldn't be surprised if I don't do something in the next five years, for sure."