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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I have to say ... this whole idea is a red herring and completely unworkable outside this BBC programme!
    The burden of excessive admin and accountability already stifles our ability as teachers to go far off the strict curriculum enforced on us (and constantly changed) by the education department. Anyone who wants to do something exciting and different (to the extent of this programme) is unable to do so due to limited funding/too-big classes/no money for cover to allow teacher out of other lessons/excessive paperwork in order to justify why and how every minute of the activity links to some sort of learning objective or outcome!
    And don't get me started on the biblical proportions of paperwork and risk assessments which must be filled in and submitted to the local authority in triplicate to see if the activity falls within the authority's insurance and safety limits [which most of Gareth's activities fail to do] - choose any of the above since all apply.

    So ... before anyone starts to ask why every teacher and school doesn't do what BBC Gareth is doing for their own children ... get real! We would love to have such freedom and large mounts of time and money to transform our subject lessons ... it will never happen.

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    Comment number 2.

    I can not agree with Majella more. Teachers have known this for years!!!

    Does Gareth really think that he is onto something here and that he is now a pioneer in education? If I was allowed the time, money and release on expectations then does that mean that I can get a BBC programme too? Because I am sure that what Gareth has achieved is nothing more than every teacher would love that they could do on a daily basis. But, we can't, pure and simple because of the pressures that are put on us!!!

    Come into a real school situation and see the pressures that teachers are really under with monitoring, planning, no money, parents etc...

    If you want to make a difference then get into Goverment and do something about it!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Riveting stuff - but I knew it was going downhill when he said "Awesome" was a superlative :-(

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    Comment number 4.

    I'm watching with great interest as a Scout Leader in an area with some very poorly performing schools.

    I know many bright boys who are bored witless at school, and who would benefit greatly from the types of engagement that Gareth is experimenting with. It is sad that there is too much rigidity in the way the National Curriculum is applied in some schools - and sometimes too little imagination and creativity from school managements and teachers.

    The "Health and Safety" issue is a bit of a red-herring - I speak as someone trained in risk-assessment and in managing H&S. None of the activities I've seen so far present unacceptable levels of risk, when done under proper supervision and with the correct equipment etc. Teachers need to be more proactive in challenging over-strict interpretation of H&S legislation (which is usually a sign of an inadequate understanding of actual risks).

    This programme is a great opportunity to educate parents and the general public about the deficiencies of our current education system. Hopefully, this will lead to more pressure for reform of the curriculum and of teaching practices.

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    Comment number 5.

    Sorry Gareth, 'awesome', 'amazing' etc. are extreme adjectives. The superlative versions would be 'the most awesome' and 'the most amazing'.

    Looking forward to the next episodes though!

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    Comment number 6.

    Oh come on everybody!
    I am a teacher myself and understand the stresses of the job, but am unable to see such negative ideas!
    I think teachers today have forgotten what the point of our job is - to help children learn and develop. Yes we have stresses and deadlines, but what Gareth was suggesting IS possible. It does not need to be their full curriculum, but just to take some of his ideas and use them as singular literacy lessons would benefit boys significantly!
    Yes it isn't groundbreaking, but no one really does anything about boys in schools as I have seen from recently graduating and seeing numerous schools in action.

    Stop being so negative about the show and take it as inspiration! I think even to take a couple of ideas and use them within singular lessons would be incredible! Boys can develop through not just them taking risks but by US AS TEACHERS TAKING RISKS! For the good of the children have an open mind!!

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    Comment number 7.

    Everyone seems to be forgetting that Boys are fantastic and girls are elastic!

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    Comment number 8.

    A fascinating start. It may not be a new idea but as a mother of a boisterous boy, I have gained a lot of insight into how they tick.
    It may not be something that can be done in the education system but it shows where Scouts and adventure sports can assist in the education of boys. I disagree with the contributor who thought the word awesome sent the programme down hill. Find things they understand to give them the understanding then stretch their vocabulary. As much as we may dislike the work it is very much in common useage today. Did you see how excited they were about the highway man poem? I never got that excited over a poem at their age and I am a book worm!! I can't wait to see what happens next.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Enjoyed the programme. I can't believe the weather was so good all the time. What happens to the plan when Gareth goes away?

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    Comment number 10.

    I am the mother of four sons. My third son had an IQ of 140+ but was 'diagnosed' as ADHD. He frequently skipped school during school hours, taking his younger brother with him. Reason? He was bored stupid. They made tents in the woods near the school. Despite my requests the school never alerted me when he was missing. Schools have been transformed into sausage making factories. if you don't fit the mould you won't get them the ratings in the tables and therefore they'd rather do without you. Why, if we are all different and appreciated for our diversity in the workplace, aren't we appreciated and taught as individuals at school when it matters? The education system destroys more lives than any other insidious drug. We need to transform it to engage all of our community in a fair and equitable shot at life. The investment needs to start here. Not in their later life as benefit payments.

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    Comment number 11.

    Its kinda sad the comments that teachers from the comments "already know this" so why has nothing been done? Im sure there are parents who could volunteer to help to give the boys support?

    I rolled my eyes as a young girl talks about "positve gender mixes", the brain-washing already begining.

    Men and women both have there strengths and weaknesses but it seems school has become too feminised. I'm in my thirties and remember back at school, the girls getting to go to special talks by women outside from industry but the boys had nothing! I can only assume things have got more one sided as time has gone on.

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    Comment number 12.


    I am not an educationalist but I just wonder if we pronounced our words correctly might that not help with the reading and spelling. For example, the teachers and the head were missing off the endings of their words - how on earth can a youngster learn to read and spell if the words are not prounced correctly? Whichever reading or spelling scheme you use fundamentally you have to rely on phonics surely?

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    Comment number 13.

    Great programme. I felt I could see the boys blossom by the end of the programme. I got the impression that the (all female) staff felt a bit threatened by the confident, articulate, optimistic and lively Gareth - qualities that the staff all seemed to lack. I feel that his approach with boys - competion, risk and learning via play - is a valid one. We are failing our boys, and well done to the programme makers and everyone involved for this experiment.

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    Comment number 14.

    I write as the mother of a (now) 16 year old boy. I think what Gareth is doing here is fantastic and about time. I suspect the teachers writing above are women - and this seems to be one of the major problems in the primary schools - way too few male teachers/role models. Way too much praising of the girls and how good they are at almost everything - this does nothing for the boys' self-esteem which, watching this programme, is very, very low.

    Also, not EVERY boy is into football - but when my son took up netball in primary school by the time he got to Year 6 was told he couldn't participate any more as the Borough only had girls' netball teams in yr 6 (even though, funnily enough, the girls could participate in football!)

    We will do our boys no good by emasculating them - after all they are our future fathers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Interesting stuff, much of which we try to use in our school. We firmly believe that talk is very important and that risk taking, not just the physical, is important to help children to develop their desire to learn and their writing. I loved the idea of getting the children to give a commentary during the football match, I shall nick that one.
    No Gareth Malone is not a teacher but I am sure that the research that backs up the program is valid and that he has had enough experience to do no more damage than the average student on a first practise...does anyone really think he has planned all of this without the help of well qualified teachers?
    If you feel that taking a risk in the classroom is not worth the effort or if you are worried that by doing so you might fail then you already have. Take a risk and be open minded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Sorry, but your moderation is taking too long so I will give up on this site

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    Comment number 17.

    Actually schools in Wales have long recognised the benefits of the 'outdoor classroom' and let's be quite clear that, whilst we can generalise and stereotype by allocating certain traits to the sexes we are really seeking to address the individual needs of individual children who are all thrust into 'mass' education. (The supreme irony is that a system devised by men for boys is now benefittng girls disproportionately) The space - so well described by one lad here - matters a lot to many. I have expereince of school visits to real family farms and the way the children can blossom (and their teachers relax!) when the four walls and classrooms next door to be disturbed are simply not there has to be seen to be believed. Yes funding and time are very real issues but teachers are resourceful and, when the impact is experienced, committed to the wellbeing of their pupils - plus it make teaching so much more fun! Let's stop hammering and try some variety. Mature parents these days are struck by how many teachers and teaching assistants are available compared to our own day and how much more the staff work as a team. One other point - more male teachers in primary schools are a must and that is an initiative that I hope this government can seize! (NB seize is the exception to the spelling rule: i before e)
    I look forward to the next programme - let's look and learn and not pre-judge! Hey we are educators...

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I was at school until the mid-80s when the govt announced that girls weren't doing as well as boys at school so the schools had to do something about it. It seems to me that they were left by the wayside in order to meet govt targets.

    I'm not a teacher and I don't envy them their jobs in the current PC world, they certainly earn their money. Is Gareth on the right track ? I don't know if we took risks at school but there was certainly lots of healthy intellectual competition, from an early age knowing things became exciting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I do like the ideas in the programme and I believe that the work with the boys has some mileage (I'm not saying that it would be practical in a "real school" environment). As some have already said, the practicality of doing this sort of thing is almost mind-boggling. The paperwork involved would be enormous, getting parents to agree etc.

    The problem is that as teachers we are judged by Ofsted criteria, where an Ofsted inspector comes in for approximately 20 minutes in which time they expect to see significant progress in the knowledge of the class, or majority of the class. There was certainly progress during tonight's programme for many of the students, but that was over a week. Unfortunately for Gareth, his entire week of lessons would have been graded "Unsatisfactory" by Ofsted as the progress was minimal in those short periods of time.

    I'm not saying that it's right, but teachers are now judged purely on snapshots of the school year, and the pressure placed upon teachers to cover the entire curriculum and show progress in short periods of time make what Gareth's doing ultimately unworkable. As people have said on this blog, it would be lovely to do this sort of thing but it's ultimately unworkable in the current education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I can see what Gareth is trying to do but he could maximise the effect of the games and outdoor activities by getting the boys to write about what they've just been doing.
    He could also get them to stand up in class and tell everyone what fun it's been and how they think it's benefitted them. Also try to encourage them to read SHORT adventure stories and talk about them to an all boys class.
    He could also try to encourage the parents to read TO their boys at home but stop just when the story gets exciting and make them read it themselves.
    It worked for my boy


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