Wednesday 24 Sep 2014
Gareth Malone has never been one to shy away from a challenge. He made his name on TV as the choirmaster in BBC Two's The Choir, a series which saw him bring together people from all walks of life and turn them into accomplished singers, and, earlier this year, he took on the challenge of helping to put together a group of young people to perform at Glyndebourne, one of the world's most celebrated opera houses.
Back in April, though, Gareth took on one of his most ambitious challenges to date that saw him becoming an educator for a term when he agreed to take on a group of 39 boys from an Essex school to help them try to re-engage with their schoolwork. Many of the boys weren't fulfilling their potential at school and, like others across Britain, lagged behind their female peers in literacy. The result is Gareth Malone's Extraordinary School For Boys – a three-part series for BBC Two that forms part of the channel's School Season (a range of programming encompassing documentary, drama and debate, focusing on schools, the tough choices parents have to make and exploring innovations in teaching).
The school in question is Pear Tree Mead in Harlow, Essex, which was chosen from the many that were keen to take part in the project. "It's typical statistically," says Gareth. "It represents the national picture when talking about literacy and the discrepancy between boys and girls, so it felt like the right place to go."
With the head teacher's full consent and involvement, Gareth was challenged to "show there has been an improvement with the majority of boys, increasing their reading age by six months in just eight weeks". The reading ages of the boys were assessed both before and after he spent time at the school so there was a clear way to assess whether his efforts had been successful.
Gareth's approach focused on three key main elements: competition, immediacy and managed risk. His "lessons" – which were held over three days a week while the boys continued their normal curricular studies on the remaining two days – took place predominately outside the classroom. And, naturally, the head teacher Chris Thurgood had the right to veto any of his ideas if she didn't feel comfortable with them.
With a history of working in schools at various points in his adult life, Gareth was keen to get involved. "I've taught drama and music and I was a learning assistant for a while in a classroom, working as a learning mentor for a boy who had special educational needs, which was a really good experience," says Gareth. "This project really sparked my interest.
"The Choir tended to be about boys – or men. I find they often provide the most interesting points for debate. This was something I'd talked about, this discrepancy between boys and girls and the style of education they respond to, so I was really passionate about it."
Head teacher Chris Thurgood acknowledged the discrepancy in her school, saying: "There are a lot of boys in the school who, for all sorts of reasons, haven't made the progress we'd expect, and certainly haven't made the same sort of progress as the girls, particularly in reading and writing." She continues: "I want them to achieve what they're capable of achieving – they deserve it."
For two weeks, Gareth sat in on mixed classes to observe how the children were learning, before taking the boys on himself. "In general, there were boys who were doing perfectly well who didn't need my help, and there were boys who weren't doing well, and some girls, but generally speaking the boys were not doing as well as the girls in literacy.
"I was given eight weeks after they'd done their SATS and I had all the boys in years five and six. It was agreed with the board of governors that I was allowed a bit more freedom with the curriculum than teachers usually have and, on the days I wasn't there, the school would ensure the requirements of the National Curriculum were met. The girls went off and had their lessons separately – they had good fun things to do as well and they were involved in the project but just not as much as the boys."
After talking with educationalists, Gareth came up with his plan for the boys. "There's some theory," he says, "but also gut instinct, based on my own experience of being a learner. I was a cub and a scout, too, and that played into it a lot. And I was also one of those boys who didn't really get excited about reading until I was about nine, although I had positive male role models at home who did read."
Gareth believes the themes he chose are integral to educating boys. "We felt the themes were really important to boys and that they were perhaps not present enough or missing from their education. Their education wasn't bad by any means, we just wanted to add some extra ingredients to help redress the balance, always with the ultimate aim of engaging the boys more in literacy."
The first theme was competition. "Boys absolutely love competition – as do girls – but particularly boys. It fell out of fashion at some point. There is a way to do competition that doesn't destroy people and, I think, it's actually really important – it's about learning to accept failure and bouncing back from it. If you've never done that until you go for your first job interview, or your first failure is when you fail your GCSEs, then you're in real trouble.
"Primary school is a good place to help build resilience to failure in children so that they can learn how to succeed from that and learn that it's about hard work and trying again."
The second theme was immediacy. Explains Gareth: "Boys love immediacy – they need immediate tasks and need to be told, 'Right, you've got 10 minutes to do this and then I'm going to come back'. Then they're off. Girls are like that, too, but boys more so.
"Immediacy is about 'What am I doing right now?'. To children, the past, which is 10 seconds ago, is gone, and the future, which is in 10 seconds' time, is light years away. Boys are very much in the present tense and you've got to give them challenges that will captivate them in the present tense and excite them about what they're about to do."
The final element of Gareth's plan was managed risk – but these all involved activities that were within the allowable parameters for the school.
"I'm not suggesting at all we put the pupils properly at risk but I wanted to engender a sense in these boys that there is excitement in what they're doing. So things like climbing trees – but with a helmet and harness – all of which was health and safety checked and done with the permission of the head teacher.
"This is all about encouraging the children and teachers at the school to feel that actually you can do this stuff. Health and safety is not there to stop you going to the local woods – it's there to make you think sensibly about it and about the risks and benefits of doing it.
"The head was willing to let us do most of the things suggested but there were things she said no to," adds Gareth, "one of which was swimming in the sea – that, for her, was too far." She felt that was an activity for parents – rather than the school – to choose whether or not to do with their child.
Risk, says Gareth, is about "personal challenge. The theory being that, if you are being challenged, you are learning to overcome obstacles in one realm and when you come back to the classroom you will have more confidence to tackle those things. It's not quite as clear cut as that but that's the general sense. You need these things in your life – you need to be challenged, I think it's really important."
One of the first challenges Gareth set up for the boys was a debating competition against the girls. "What I was trying to do was improve literacy, but not by teaching them to read and write. It was by doing other things that would stimulate them and excite them about language."
While the boys were initially reluctant about the debating competition, it was a challenge that soon excited them. "They got really het up about it, saying: 'Right, we've got to make better arguments.'
"We also had a reading world cup, where the boys read in teams, and they got really excited about that, too, because there was a prize at the end. They all really got into it.
"With the girls joining in, they also wrote their own school play, helped by author Jonny Zucker; and it was about aliens and Romans and William the Conqueror. The play was put on at the Harlow Playhouse, in front of the general public, and they were understandably pretty nervous about that, because they were responsible for something, and they slowly realised that we weren't going to write it for them and they had to knuckle down. And it was scary – but good scary."
Gareth says that it was this "general sense of interest in things" that he was trying to encourage. "If you're getting a child excited about coming to school then you're getting somewhere. You can always acquire knowledge, that's almost the easy part, but how do you acquire enthusiasm and excitement? That's more intangible and I think, actually, it's as important, if not more important, than giving them just the focus on the core skills. These core skills are vitally important – you've got to have all that and the teachers were doing a good job of that, and most of the boys were able to read; they just didn't want to and so some were behind the level they should have reached at that age."
Gareth is keen to point out that the teachers at Pear Tree Mead were doing a great job and that they also supported him with the boys, particularly when he left the premises with them. "I was assisted and the teachers were helpful and hugely onside if, understandably, a little sceptical of my ideas sometimes! But it was my job to deal with the boys."
He's also not advocating same-sex schools and believes that both boys and girls need the balance of each other. "What I'm really supporting is giving teachers permission to say that boys are different and their education needs might be different sometimes and altered accordingly.
"I don't want to give away how the boys did when their reading was tested again at the end of term, but promising is the word I would use for the results. I truly think it was worth all the hard work and effort, not just from me but the boys themselves."
And as a new school term begins, head teacher Chris is looking at the activities Gareth used with a view to seeing which she might want to implement at the school over the next year and possibly beyond. And Gareth is hoping to go back to judge next year's debating competition and to see how the boys are getting on.
"The great thing with The Choir is that you've got 100 boys on stage, all singing a song, and it looks like a miracle has happened. It's much harder with this because you're talking about an improvement in reading age – it's less tangible, it's slow. But the consequence is huge – there's much more at stake in this series; this is boys' lives and futures."
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