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Gareth Malone - from choir master to school teacher

David Shaw David Shaw | 12:49 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010

While watching Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School for Boys last night, one question popped into my mind: Is it enough to be inspirational?

Let me say first, I think Gareth Malone is wonderful. He is a slight figure, looking much younger than his 35 years. Gareth is a choir master, who has made it on the small screen thanks to his inspirational ways of dealing with underprivileged children and helping them to overcome their own fears of singing in public.

This time around he is extending his repertoire from singing to literacy by aiming to inspire 30 lads in years 5 and 6 to read, write and articulate their thoughts.


Gareth Malone BBC copyright

Gareth turns educator for one term. His mission is to re-engage boys who aren't fulfilling their potential at school and who, like many across Britain, lag behind their female peers.

When my own son was in year 6, it seemed that his teacher failed to engage him significantly and he coasted throughout the year, doing just enough to keep out of trouble, but not enough to develop his thinking muscles.

I don't think that is an uncommon experience, and many of the boys in the programme do not appear engaged at any level.

The aim of the new mini-series, part of the BBC School Season, is to redress the balance between the boys and their female counterparts who, according to national statistics, average a lead of between six months and a year over the boys.

It's a big step and a small step.

A small step because Gareth uses the same techniques to engage the boys that we have seen in his previous three projects. He praises; he uses physical activity; he participates; he brings in credible role models. He thinks out of the box.

And that's why it is a big step. Gareth has no formal teaching qualifications.

In the choir business, there is no legal requirement to accomplish certain tasks or to tackle the subject in a prescribed way. Literacy, on the other hand, is at the centre of government policy in schools, and figures strongly in the National Curriculum and all the complex rules that go with that edifice.

In the current project, Gareth has free rein (heath and safety permitting) to take the boys out and chop down trees (a success); play otherwise-forbidden games (not a success) and bring in external role models (another success).

At this stage I don't know whether, at the end of the series, we will be left with the impression that all it takes is a good teacher, or whether we will be left with the feeling that the government is interfering too much in the education system. The signs are toward the latter, as Gareth says teachers are being compelled to teach boring topics in boring ways.

There is no doubt that literacy among boys is an issue and that we as a society need to ensure that boys learn from books just as much as they do from their games consoles.
In that spirit, any positive contribution to the debate is worthwhile. I am sure this will emerge as a positive contribution, if only for the boys at Pear Tree Mead School.

However, the issue is much broader than the relationship between teacher and pupil. It's about parents; government policy and resources, and those have just as much influence over literacy skills as specific teaching techniques and style.

I'll be watching the rest of the series, if only to get some tips on how to deal with unruly 10 year old boys!

David Shaw is a member of the BBC Parent Panel.

Read Gareth Malone's entry on the BBC TV blog

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys  is part of the BBC Two School Season of programmes.

To find out times of all episodes from this series, please visit the upcoming episodes page.


  • Comment number 1.

    As a primary school teacher, I applaud his determination to push the boundaries in regard to learning environments. What was apparent was the need to temper the creativity with more structured boundaries. Gareth made mistakes - as should be expected - but the learning was limited by the lack of control. It is ironic that in order to afford children opportunities to be creative & independent, you need to structure it rigorously.

    Overall, I hope the outcome is positive and that the children make steps forward. I'll be watching with my fingers crossed.

  • Comment number 2.

    Will the BBCs schools season include anything about Scotland#s Curriculum For Excellence? As I understand it the Curriculum is designed to encourage teachers to be able to use different methods of teaching and also to allow the children to set the pace of their work. I am hopeful (as the mother of two boys) that this will mean that approaches like Gareth Malone's would be far more acceptable as part of the curriculum in Scotland.

  • Comment number 3.

    I really welcome the debate regarding the teaching methods today. I have two boys and the oldest has just started yr1 and is struggling at school with reading and writing. We attempt to do reading and learning of words daily whereby my eldest son fidgets and looks anywhere but the book and suddenly doesn’t feel well. Our evenings have become a constant battle! As for writing I can’t get him to do writing at all. Although we’ve read books to him since he was a baby and he has a huge imagination and loves discussing the book in great depth he doesn’t want to read a word. So desperate to find a way to engage my child in reading I came across a book for myself that was about right-brained children in a left-brained world. Although the book was aimed to help parent’s with children with possible Attention deficit Disorder and gifted children I found some of the teaching ideas interesting. I don’t actually think my child has ADD but it opened myself up to the idea that some children are right-brained visual learners. It puts forward that man evolved from telling stories around the fire to reading, writing and lecturing. Children now get more information from television and computers and less from the printed page. Don’t get me wrong though however the world is changing literacy is always going to be important. Often we’ve heard that boys are more right-brained whereby their language skills may be less developed early on but they are stronger on their visual/spatial awareness. The reason why this train of thought interests me is that perhaps one fit’s all methods of education is not working for our children. The constant drilling and repetition way of learning might not fit all. Perhaps we need to allow teachers to have a variety of teaching methods up their sleeves and to be adaptable to what works with different children. Each child reads with the teacher daily so whatever method works should be used and not have rigid ways of teaching. The results at the end of the school year should speak not the methods of achieving those goals. Children may be failing on literacy not because they lack the ability but because the teaching methods are possibly not suitable to the boy’s way of learning. This is from a mum that chose the school on league tables and ofsted’s and has completely changed my view. I would now choose a school on its ability to think outside the box and to keep abreast of teaching ideas and in its perseverance to ensure our children are confident and most of all happy to learn. Whatever it takes to achieve that.

  • Comment number 4.

    Just to keep this short - Gareth you made me cry, just seeing how upset that you were when the young lad said he was stupid because he could not read says it all, you may not be a teacher or have to 'work with the established way that the teacher have too, to make this progamme' but you got this group of boys interested in book and reading, well done. I speak as a grandparent whos 12 yr old grandson still is struggling with reading. And 'well done' to all those boys who will now go through life knowing what you have given them.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have to say i was disappointed with the attitude of the female teachers in episode one, they came across as almost wanting the project to fail.Boys are behind girls but what are female teachers( who are by far the majority) for this age group doing to redress this balance, not much evidently . At some stage they should be held accountable for their failings
    Shouldn't they have welcomed the initative, and shown some enthusiasm for the project as a means of helping them.
    No wonder the boys were so negative about learning.

  • Comment number 7.

    I agree with house 2 about the attitude of the female teachers, rather negative and expecting gareth to fail. What a fantastically enthusiastic man he is, I really hope he exceeds. I have found the whole experience of watching this exhilarating. In my experience, boys dont start falling behind at 7years old they can start falling behind at 4 years old and boys certainly should not be going into formal education until they are at least 5 years old and have had the opportunity of being in nursery education where they have been able to succeed and have grasped the letters of the alphabet and phonic sounds.I am a huge fan of learning outdoors, in my view , boys and girls learn in a totally different way.

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree with postings 6 and 7 about the attitude of the female teachers. I have watched both episodes and think this series should be required viewing for all prospective teachers. Boys need and are inspired by competition, they need to take risks and they need positve role models. None of these are provided by our current education system and this failure is the root cause of the lack of interest and consequent lack of progress of boys. Educationalists take note.

  • Comment number 9.

    I think Gareth did a fantastic job with all those boys. He is a really inspiring person and I loved the way he cared for each individual and wanted the best for them. I thought it was interesting (and rather sad) that at the end of the series the head teacher was not more forthcoming with her praise and gratitude for all Gareth's hard work ... I don't think we got to see her actually saying 'well done' to him (or even thank you) - her reaction felt like a half-hearted surrender that his teaching methods had actually worked! For what it's worth, Gareth, I think you are a very gifted teacher. Well done!

  • Comment number 10.

    I am a male primary school teacher who teachers infants and juniors. I have been teaching for four years. While I agree that Gareth did a fantastic job and proved inspirational, caring and hardworking I think it’s wrong to hold him up as revolutionary or exceptional. His ideas are commonly used in primary classrooms and his work ethic is mirrored throughout the teaching profession. He has done a wonderful job in highlighting examples of good teaching but it should be recognised that this standard of teaching and the methods used (without the budgets and class sizes he benefited from) can be seen in schools across the country. I would urge any parents who enjoyed the program to speak to your child’s school and ask about coming in to watch a lesson. As a teacher I am always happy to have parents come and watch.


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