Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys

Wednesday 8 September 2010, 15:11

Gareth Malone Gareth Malone Presenter

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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.

Gareth Malone with some of the boys from his class

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.

Gareth Malone in the woods with several boys from his class

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 221.

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    Comment number 222.

    May I congratulate Gareth's programme on highlighting the two most important factors for successful learning - 1) developing confidence in children 2) making learning fun. Time after time the the comments from the boys made it very clear that if children are to be involved in their learning these two factors must be paramount. Last night the telling comment for me was "when you are happy you learn".
    Obviously Gareth's approach was unique and cannot always be sustained by teachers, but it showed clearly that when teachers are encouraged to be insiprational in a cretaive way to present the National Curriculum to children learning is successful.
    I make these comments from experience of working with Pear Tree Mead school between 2003 and 2006 when they were part of a consortium of Harlow schools that were just as concerned then about boys'literacy skills. During that period we monitored a year group for three years from y4-y6 who were encouraged by their teachers to use Music, Art and Drama as the springboard for learning, which were the key elements of Gareth's approach. The results of that project are to be found in the school's SAT's results for 2004 - 2006.
    I trust that serious note will be taken of the programme as it provides a very serious debating point for the way in which children of Primary school age are educated.

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    Comment number 223.

    Yes, it was television, yes, everyone wanted Gareth to succeed and, no, we didn't see all the footage on the cutting room floor, but the bottom line is, if the boys had fallen flat on their faces in the play and/or had failed to show improvement in the test, there would have been no way of hiding it. This being a reality TV show, he was set an ambitious target and he met it.

    It's obvious that Gareth's regime and methods cannot be a template for all schools, certainly not under the current system with all its targets etc. Some of the activities required good weather and it was lucky that he got it. It would be interesting to have seen what Gareth would have done if it had been February or it had poured with rain for the entire 8 weeks. Some of the boys' reaction may have been due to the fact that they were on TV. Finally there is Gareth. He got this series by being exceptional at what he does and to replicate his success, we would need to find lots of people of his calibre.

    However, there are lots of things we CAN take out of this. The boys clearly responded to Gareth's method and part of this is probably due to the fact that he was a man. Yes, he may have got some things wrong. The incident with Callum may have betrayed his inexperience, but it may also have highlighted that there is a male and a female way of dealing with this situation. The important thing is, he got Callum back on board and clearly got through to him in a way that few, if anyone, had done so in the past. This may simply highlight the need for more men in primary schools.

    The library clearly lacked books which appealed to boys and this can be rectified. The head had banned Bulldog because of a spate of injuries, but we don't know what these were. If students had been taken to hospital with concussion, fair enough. If, as I suspect, they were scraped knees and bumped heads, so what? This attitude may well also be part of the problem.

    Gareth's methods had to be radical and intensive, because of the scale of the problem and the time at his disposal to improve things. If we take what we can out of the series and apply it from the reception and year 1 classes onwards, we might not be in the situation we currently find ourselves in.

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    Comment number 224.

    200. At 10:09pm on 18 Sep 2010, CorinnaS wrote:
    I think Gareth is such an inspiring and enabling person. I share his passion to help children engage in the world of words and imagination and express this through my work with reluctant readers from an early age. I would love to be able to make contact with him and share how I am seeking to address this issue in my own limited way.

    Is this helpful?

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    Comment number 225.

    I have to say that it grieves me enormously that so many people have become so preoccupied with all the things that don't matter and as a result lost sight of what has been really important about this programme.Frankly, the teacher's accents and the clothes they wear are of little consequence in the scheme of things. What matters is that they are highly committed to their work and clearly understand their children. When Callum's teacher told Gareth that he had handled the situation with Callum badly she was actually quite right. (and I speak as a teacher with years of experience of working with challenging children!)At the time of the incident Gareth was really feeling under pressure(he actually verbalised this himself) and consequently dealt differently with the situation than he mighht have done at other times. In all honesty, he really didn't listen to Callum's side of the story! As Gareth said, 'The pressure's mounting!' When we feel under pressure any of us can mess up. However, what's really important is that he didn't give up on Callum - and for that matter, Callum didn't give up on him, which is testimony to the great relationship he had established with the children.(Within the context of such a relationship children will forgive adults anything!)

    So PLEASE let's not get bogged down in the perifery of things at the expense of seeing the bigger picture. Gareth Malone really went the exra mile for those boys. He used his imagination and insight and never stopped trying - and that's what's needed when you work with children. This programme has focused real attention on the needs of boys in education. If it goes any way towards persuading those with the power to do so to make the changes required to ensure that boys get a better deal it will have been thoroughly worthwhile.

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    Comment number 226.

    I have watched this programme with interest and I have read some of the comments. I would like to make these comments :

    1. Gareth is passionate about all that he undertakes - something that's not apparent from much of the teaching staff these days.

    2. Why are children allowed to whine, Goood moooorning Mr. Malllooone.
    What happened to a straightforward, good morning Mr Malone?

    3. Why are teachers allowed to dress in such a sloppy way with their cleavage on show? It's not surprising kids slouch and drag their feet along when some teachers look as though they have been dragged through a hedge backwards.

    4. Wishy washy teachers raise wishy washy kinds. 4 teachers went to report to one teacher about the way that Gareth spoke to Callum. 4 teachers went to snitch - pathetic.

    5. What Gareth did was put Callum in his place. Callum knew why he was there and accepted it. He didn't show respect so why should Gareth have listened to him.

    6. When Gareth left, Callum made a point of telling him that he would miss him. Of course he would. He knew exactly where he stood with Gareth and exactly where the line was he wasn't to cross.

    Sorry if this upsets anyone. We are bringing up a nation of weak children with little or no ambition, drive or care. My son's art teacher once told me that he lacked 'motivation and inspiration'. Surely as his art teacher wasn't she suppose to motivate and inspire him?

    I know the pressures of teaching. I understand there are constraints. But I think we need to look at the sort of people that are graduating and ask ourselves are these people that can fire the imagination of children, motivate and inspire them. Pass on their passion for their subject. And then maybe, just maybe our youngsters will light up and shine.

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    Comment number 227.

    THANK YOU Mr Malone and Mrs Thurgood. It is so inspiring to see people taking risks for something they believe in and this was a risk.

    Gareth I wish all kids could have people in their lives as passionate and interested and caring as you showed yourself to be. It was inspiring - I was riveted. Sadly it also made me seriously depressed about my kids experiences (particularly my 2 boys)... a lot of the criticisms about todays education system rang true for me. I so want them to be inspired and enthused.

    On literacy three things:

    1. It is a CRIME that any kid leaves our schools today unable to read. If kids are taught phonics properly they should all learn to read. At my kids school I worked as a volunteer and I took 3 kids (all boys!) who were at least a year behind in year 3/4 worked through a set of graded phonic reading books (there are quite a few now: Jelly and Bean, Dandelion Readers, Talisman, ReadWriteInc., Songbirds). Some of these are specifically aimed at boys. Because they were fully decodable each child built huge confidence because they weren't being made to read books that they were not ready to read. Each one of those boys made huge leaps in reading. Once they learnt the phonic code thoroughly they transitioned to ordinary books very well because they had a sense of belief and confidence. I think often in schools we just batter them with "why aren't you reading" when we haven't given confidence in the basic skills. Each of those boys now in years 5 & 6 is now reading confidently (in fact I saw one read a long passage they had written in an assembly recently). Kids must have these skills before they go to secondary school or they will fall down a hole. We are all responsible as parents, educators and members of the community to make sure every kid learn to read. Do it! It will give you great pleasure!

    2. On writing I run typing club for kids. It is incredible how quickly most kids learn to type. The BBC has a great typing course called Dance Mat Typing (CBBC website). In lunch-time for half an hour once a week I have taught about 50 kids to type over the last two years. For many it takes about 10 sessions (5 hours)! I started doing it because two of my own children have problems writing. They have poor fine motor control and they simply find that their hands hurt (hypermobile joints). Once my daughter had learnt to type I bought her an alpha-smart (very simple keyboard with a memory) and she was allowed to use it in school for some of her lessons (Year 3). Suddenly she was able to express herself and show what her ideas were and they were really great. She did not use it all the time. We still made her keep up her writing and she did special handwriting excercises. And now as a Year 6 she is absolutely flying in English. She no longer uses her alphasmart except for fun at home because her writing although still messy is much more legible and she can keep up with her peers. I am sure that being able to express herself via typing helped her confidence amazingly. I am hoping to do the same with my son. I wonder how many other kids would benefit from a similar approach. The alphasmart is amazing as it is fairly indestructible and boots at the press of a button.

    3. We seem to have forgotten the importance of not just listening to our children read but also READING TO them. This shouldn't stop when they can read themselves. If you keep reading to your child above their literacy level you will bring on their literacy in leaps and bounds. If you also chat to the kid about what you are reading then they will be practising their teaching. There is no better way to communicate how great reading is than to share a good book together.

    I think what Gareth shows in this program is that a huge part of what we need to do is build confidence. Yes that starts with speaking - I loved the debating club in episode 1. I hope there is now a spate of debating clubs in all the primary schools in Britain. I for one am going to think about starting one!

    Please Heads and teachers don't let this ludicrous nanny state we live in get you down. I know many of you (including my own parent, friends and siblings) work yourselves to the bone trying to get kids motivated and it can be long old battle. But it is good for us all to be open minded and risk trying something different from time to time. And that is what Mrs Thurgood and her staff have done here - Top Marks!

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    Comment number 228.

    The problem with this programme, and I have no doubts that most of the people involved in making it had the best intentions, is that it has given such an unrealistic and over-simplified version of the issues that it has given people who don't know what they are talking about a stick to beat teachers who are working their hardest to improve these children's lives. It seems to have pandered to people who want schools to return to the 1950s (when boys still hated writing) and given an outlet to a fair bit of snobbery. I'm hoping the programmes involving Dylan William (someone who knows what he's talking about) will be more relevant to education today.

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    Comment number 229.

    Hi, do you get time to read this? Not expecting a reply, in answer to my question.
    Well done! I have taught year 5 and 6 for over a decade in the UK and really loved the show. Initially I felt undermined as I think most primary teachers want to see children learn, and understand that this is best put into practise with child centred motivating 'stuff', which you did well.
    But a lack of resources and budgeting can be very restrictive.
    That's obvious though, so how can we make education mean something more to the government than just lip service. I mean really prioritse it with funding?
    And like loads of the posts have mentioned, the strategies suit girls too!

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    Comment number 230.

    Having worked in education for many years I would like to say I am astonished at the attitude of a post by Devonlady accusing 4 members of school staff, who had raised concerns about the way Gareth Malone spoke to a pupil as "snitches". How on earth can raising concerns about the treatment of a child be seen as "snitching".
    As the programme only showed a couple of minutes of the incident I am unable to understand how you are able to insult school staff who only have the children's best interest at heart. You also state that 4 teachers complained to the class teacher about the way Gareth spoke to the pupil, it was in fact 4 staff members which include administrative staff, classroom support, premises staff and mid-day assistant. Children are individuals with individual needs, and should be treated accordingly.

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    Comment number 231.

    When I started school just before my 5th birthday, I was already reading. After a couple of weeks my parents noticed that I had stopped reading at home. They visited the school to find out why. My teacher had been insisting that all children used the same books and progressed at the same rate - and I was getting bored stiff. I really didn't see the point of reading that Jane helps mummy wash the dishes and Peter helps daddy wash the car.

    Eventually it was agreed that my best friend and I would have the key to a cupboard of old books, and could choose our own reading material. It was a treasure trove - pirates, Captain Cook, The Jungle Books (and not the Disney simplification, the originals), tales of adventure, exploration and derring-do. I loved it.

    Children need books that excite, entertain and inspire. Gareth has picked up on this.

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    Comment number 232.

    I only saw yesterday's program. It was quite interesting, it gives you an idea of what teachers are up against. But really it also shows shocking and incompetent parenting... Kids that never visited a bookshop, kids that find reading is for girls, kids that play Xbox for hours on end in their bedrooms. Depressing to say the least.


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