In the summer term of 2010 I was welcomed by Chris Thurgood, the head teacher of Pear Tree Mead Primary School, to teach a class of 39 boys. Since arriving at the school two years previously, she had been aware of the discrepancy in educational achievement between boys and girls.

Quite simply the girls were doing better and they couldn't seem to get the boys to knuckle down. She made an unlikely choice: She accepted my offer that I, a choirmaster, might be able to help her sort out the problem.

To begin, I spoke to many educational experts and drew on my own experience as a boy at a regular state primary school. I remember our headmaster, Mr Brine, was kind but imposing.

I can recall three things about him: One - his favourite hymn was Morning Has Broken (through he preferred the Cat Stevens version). Two - he introduced me to Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (for which I'm forever grateful!) and three - he reprimanded me very severely when we were on a school trip for using a telephone without permission. I definitely deserved it.

Later on I attended Bournemouth Grammar School. The selective atmosphere suited me down to the ground because I couldn't bear to come last at anything academic. It was run on traditional lines and I think it's influenced the person I am today in a number of ways.

There was a great ethos of respect between staff and pupils - we stood when a teacher came into the room, hard work was rewarded, and there was inspiring teaching by people who loved their subjects.

Because I'm known as a choirmaster people imagine that I don't do anything else, as if all choirmasters sit around listening to music from 1605. So when I arrived at Pear Tree Mead I was worried that I would not be taken seriously by the teachers when it came to literacy.

In fact my degree was in drama with a heavy accent on the study of text so I consider myself to be fairly literate. But once you get a name for something it's hard for people to accept you trying something else - as anyone who's ever tried to change job will tell you.

This was a departure for me and that made me nervous. That and the prospect of teaching 39 boys.

I was advised that boys need to know who's in charge, what the rules are, and if they will be applied fairly. With that simple adage I progressed. I can't say I always prevailed but you have to show the boys that you are not to be trifled with.

At the same time, boys can be very sensitive and when they are scared or not getting their own way they can lash out. Training the boys to listen to each other and be respectful of each others' feelings is the work of a lifetime.

I was amazed how often boys cry over tiny things. We have this image that crying is for girls but, wow, the boys could cry at anything: Falling over, petty injustices in the playground, or just because they were not able to do something.

From talking to the experts, teachers and parents, I've become convinced that modern life is pulling boys in directions that don't necessarily help the basic skills of reading and writing.

Many boys play hours and hours of computer games every day which can be over-stimulating. By contrast a book can seem rather dull and that too much effort is required for not as much reward. In addition, children aren't allowed to roam as freely as they were in the past.

There are obviously real safety concerns about letting kids out unsupervised but too much 'cotton-wooling' is damaging for a boy's sense of self belief, and I found that if I gave them responsibility to step outside their comfort zone they really rose to the challenge.

Some of the boys were very behind in their reading. It was deeply affecting and difficult to know how to help. Several times I wondered if my approach was having anything but a detrimental effect, because as a new teacher you measure your success minute by minute.

If an activity goes well then you are elated. If it doesn't go according to plan it can leave you feeling pretty dejected and make you question yourself constantly. I think that over time teachers learn to roll with the punches.

But over the course of the term we did make a difference. I'm really proud that I tackled something that is of real importance. I'm proud of what I achieved with the boys and that the school will be taking some of my ideas forward.

I loved the excitement of the boys debating with the girls in the first programme, but camping in the school grounds was the most memorable experience. Tending the fire in the dead of night whilst the boys slept under the starlight was magical.

This has been a very busy year for me and I'm looking forward to a bit of a break. My wife - who is a teacher herself - is about to give birth to our first child and I'm absolutely convinced it'll be a boy!

Gareth Malone is the presenter of Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys.

Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys starts at 9pm on Thursday, 9 September at 9pm on BBC Two and is part of the channel's School Season of programmes.

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

Read the BBC Parenting blog post about the programme by David Shaw, member of the BBC Parent Panel.

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  • Comment number 161. Posted by Chris Thurgood

    on 16 Sept 2010 19:00

    Thank you ever so much for the lovely comments of support for the programme and the school from many people. Taking on a project like this was a big risk but we thought in the end that it was worth taking a leap of faith in the hope that we could really explore different ways to teach our boys.
    I can see from the blog that the series touches on issues felt by so many parents and schools. We did the programme to help the boys we felt hadn’t reached their potential. Despite giving pupils all the extra help we can, I wish the money and resources were available to all schools to give every single boy (and girl) struggling with their basic skills the intensive help that they can need. It is my ultimate aim to help every child that passes through my care to do the best they possibly can and any educator or parent will know that it is not always an easy journey for many children.
    I was disappointed to read some of the comments regarding my staff's attire and speech. With all the outdoor activities Gareth was doing it was often necessary to wear clothes appropriate to the activity that was taking place. As you will have seen, a vast majority of the activities were outside on the field or in the Woodland School and casual clothing was a necessity. I can assure you that we take pride in dressing professionally and setting a good example to the children.
    Anyone who knows these teachers knows that they are passionate about their job and the children they teach and I am always impressed with the in depth knowledge they have of each child in their class. I’d like to thank them for being so professional, supporting Gareth throughout, and also having the courage to be on national television.
    Even though the process was not always easy I really do feel that it’s been so worthwhile. What with Gareth’s enthusiasm and ideas and my staff’s professionalism, we’ll take on and adapt most of what he brought to the school.
    I hope you enjoy the rest of the series and that it gives teachers even more courage to take risks.
    If nothing changes, nothing changes.

  • Comment number 160. Posted by Gareth Malone

    on 16 Sept 2010 16:40

    I’m absolutely delighted that the programme has provoked so much healthy debate. Thanks for watching.

    First, a correction. Many people have contacted me to point out that some of the words I accepted from the boys as examples of superlatives were in fact adjectives. I had believed that one definition of ‘superlative’ was exaggerated in style, hyperbolic. I erred. I stand corrected. I’m currently wearing the dunce’s cap and standing in the bin in the corner. I’m used to this as I had a fair few comments following ‘The Choir’ about musical matters.

    Should I have gone to the school? Majella in post 1 (before the programme had aired) took issue with the whole premise and wrote about how unrealistic it was; the limitations put on teachers are such that any changes of this sort to the curriculum would be impossible. (See Rosie Millard in last Sunday’s Times for more on Majella’s posts!)

    However, further down the blog I was delighted to see Jenny Clark, a teacher, suggest that these things are possible within school. I understand that many teachers feel that they are not as free to improvise and innovate as they would like. I am married to a teacher, and having spent my entire working career in schools, I feel that I can comment on the huge variety of situations that exist. I would say that I have been to between 50 and 100 state schools working with teachers on a large number of projects, and during that time I’ve met some teachers who feel as though they are in a straightjacket, but others who don’t. It seems to depend on the atmosphere of the school.

    The reason I took on this project is because some boys in our society become disenfranchised from education. It’s not just about results, though that does reflect their lack of interest in school. As many have pointed out my first experience of working with young people was as a youth worker. This has affected the way I see people with low confidence and made me feel that whatever the rights and wrongs of my approach it’s worth the fight.

    Many people have commented that it’s wrong to leave the girls out. I’d have loved to have taught them too but not only were they outside the scope of the programme, there also is not the same worry in that particular school about the girls and reflected nationally in the SATS results. I was attempting to tackle the problem with the boys - not advocate a different way of teaching across the school. Having said that I think that girls too would benefit from some of these changes. They were involved during the debate and next week you will see more involvement.

    Many of you have mentioned ‘Forest School’. I was advised by Essex Outdoors that Forest School was a brand name and as such we should avoid it. We weren’t following the specific precepts of that system so it wouldn’t have been correct to claim that this was a ‘Forest School’. The way we used the outdoor space was influenced by my own experience in the scouts, my discussions with people who work successfully with young men (including an adviser with a military background), and the expertise of Essex Outdoors.

    It may appear that I was making up these ideas as I went along, but in fact I conducted research with two leading practitioners in the field of raising boys’ achievement. At the start of the series I met Gary Wilson, a former teacher who is now a consultant used by the Department for Education among others. I also spoke at length with Sue Palmer, who has written extensively about modern childhood. Both these experts came to Pear Tree Mead to lead a full-day inset training sessions for the entire staff of the school at the start of the project. From these discussions, we devised the curriculum for the boys, of which the viewers see edited highlights.

    Whatever you make of the programme, I hope that everyone can respect the enormous risk taken by Chris Thurgood the Head, and can appreciate how much trust it took for the teachers to open up their classrooms to our cameras. These young women are dedicated and passionate. They had tentatively employed some of the techniques already and were excited by the possibility of being free to take them further. They have been rightly distressed by the quite personal comments here and elsewhere about their Essex accents, as have I.

    The programme makes no judgements about the teachers; they are outside the field of view because the series is about how I tackled the situation. There are many reasons why boys become disengaged, many of which are out of the teachers’ control.

    I hope that the show continues to stimulate debate.

    Gareth Malone

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