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Creativity - the key to boys' progress in literacy

Hannah Hunter Hannah Hunter | 12:36 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

I think it’s fair to say that the UK has a problem with boys' literacy skills – at GCSE only 57.9% of boys achieved a C grade or above (considered to be a pass) in English this year, compared with 71.9% of girls, according to a report in The Guardian.

As seen in Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys the disparity in literacy skills starts in primary schools, and radical steps need to be taken in order to close the attainment gap.  The concluding episode showed that Malone was able to make a real difference to the literacy levels of a group of ‘average’ year 5 and year 6 boys.  

His techniques really engaged the students, with exercise, a taste of outdoor living, various role-playing and other less formal teaching tools providing real life context for his pupils’ literary efforts. The school production, written by the students, was a testament to the fact that when boys are engaged with a task they are able to read and write as well as the girls.

Gareth Malone with boys from a primary school in Essex
 Gareth Malone with boys from a primary school in Essex, rehearsing
for their end-of-year school  play which they wrote themselves

However, if you took any good primary school teacher and asked them what they would do to help students struggling with the literacy curriculum, their solutions wouldn’t be far from Malone’s. The reason why this kind of thing doesn’t happen in all classrooms is not in fact poor teaching, but curriculum restrictions and the fact that most year 6 (and often year 5) lessons will be taught ‘to the test’ rather than being guided by individual teachers’ creativity. 

Most teachers will tell you that the primary literacy curriculum is often delivered in a way that is boring for both girls and boys. At risk of extreme over-generalising I think that the main gender difference is that girls have been taught to be more compliant and hardworking, so will succeed despite being bored witless, whereas boys will tend to switch off more quickly if something doesn’t interest them.

By the book, uninspiring teaching does not happen in all schools and it’s easy to forget, when watching a programme of this kind, how diverse teachers (and their classes) are in reality.  

I was fortunate to train in some excellent primary schools in Hackney, one of the poorest boroughs in London. The intake of pupils was mixed in ability and background, but the results achieved by variously talented teachers were often remarkable. 

During that time, one teacher stood out as really engaging his pupils, not just in literacy. He didn’t really conform to the national curriculum, but took themes (the old-fashioned project based teaching which most of us enjoyed) and used them to teach different subjects. The students explored themes that interested them which they were allowed to examine in depth, often taking their own initiative and direction.

This teacher had the full support of the head and the rest of the teaching staff, and was able to ‘get away’ with his unconventional approach by virtue of his excellent results. This kind of teaching is already happening all over the country and needs the support of schools and government policy, as demonstrated in this article in the TES

So while it may be mildly insulting to teachers that a choirmaster, with no formal training, is allowed free rein for 8 weeks and ‘miraculously’ is seen to turn the boys’ fortunes around, we can take something very valuable from this series. If you allow teachers creative freedom to make lessons fun and interesting, then the pupils might actually show some interest and harness their own creativity (and it’s not just the boys who will benefit).  

Hannah Hunter is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys is part of BBC Two's School Season.

You may be interested in this article from BBC Nottingham about a new literacy scheme just launched in Nottinghamshire.






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