Why is Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for boys ONLY?

September 14, 2010 at 8:22 am 9 comments

by Alec Patton

Gareth and the boys (from the BBC website)

Gareth Malone, the UK’s only celebrity choirmaster, is taking the boys out of an Essex primary school class three days a week, during which he is free to work outside the constraints of the national curriculum (and outside the walls of the school). His goal is to raise the reading age of a majority of his students by six months. The BBC is documenting it, in a programme called Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys.

I watched the first episode last week, and up to a point he’s doing great stuff: he focuses their work on preparing for a debate, so that the students need to collaborate on something with more at stake than just a grade. We’ve found this kind of learning to be extremely important in Learning Futures. He also takes advantage of the underutilised school grounds, taking the kids into the woods – which reminded me of the work on sustainability at Bydales school.

But this TV programme will do more harm than good to UK education, if they don’t get over the idea that this sort of learning is good for boys ONLY.

The rather odd premise of Malone’s ‘Extraordinary School for Boys’ is that disengagement from school is a problem that only afflicts men – the girls (whom we barely see) are presumed to be totally absorbed in whatever they’re being taught inside the classroom. The reason for this, we are told, is that schools are designed for the way that girls learn, but don’t take into account the way that boys learn.

After we watched the show, my partner pointed out just how silly this notion is: the UK  education system came into being in order to train young people for jobs in the brand-new industrial economy.* At that time, women weren’t even allowed into most professions. School was literally ‘designed for boys’.

The basic structures of school have barely changed since then. So, when school is boring, it’s boring not because was designed ‘for girls’, but because it was designed for the nineteenth century.

*The film We are the People We’ve Been Waiting For makes this point really well (see below).


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark  |  September 16, 2010 at 9:02 pm

    I think a key point has been missed here. Although you may be right about our education system coming out of a male-centred industrial economy, that is not where we are now. Our primary schools are now totally dominated by a female workforce.

    The reason why girls do so much better, and are therefore not the focus of this project, is that primary schools normally focus so much on girls!!!

    The female-dominated primary worksforce simply doesn’t meet the needs of pre-teen boys. The Headteacher in the programme who turned up her nose at the thought of kids and their dads camping out on the school grounds, because she ‘hates camping’ was so typical – who cares what she likes??? She’s supposed to be engaging these boys!!!

    The focus on reading of fiction does not suit boys either, but is perfect for girls. At the end of the day, why does anyone need to read fiction to be successful, which is by definition, just something that someone made up?

    Personally, I have always hated reading fiction, and have never read it by choice…only when forced to at school. I am a perfectly good reader, and a lack of reading fiction hasn’t stopped me earning a degree and becoming a Physics teacher! Why shouldn’t boys read about space, dinosaurs, football, whatever?!?!?


  • 2. d12258  |  September 16, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    I am sorry but I totally disagree with the fact that because primary schools are dominated by females, the curriculum is set up for girls!!! Rubbish! I am a female primary teacher and our school has 3 male teachers. Their results are no better than mine in terms of raising the achievement for reading and writing in SAT tests. The “creative curriculum” which we have brought in covers space, world war II, minibeasts and we have ant farms, chickens, frog spawn etc. We still have disengaged boys who struggle to read!! Camping outside per se I don’t think would have had any impact at all, if the boys hadn’t seen their own dads reading…which is a role model above and beyond any male or female teacher. Gareth also had a realisation that teachers are fighting against X-Boxes, which one of the boys admitted that he played from 3.30-8.00pm then he couldn’t sleep for seeing images. Black and white words on a page a bound to be boring compared with the visual film-like imagery of any X-Box. You have to work harder to create the images in your head so why would they bother when they can have the instantaneous gratification of seeing them on the screen…which one of the other boys also mentioned when he said he preferred films to books. I think Gareth hit the nail on the head when he said there has to be competition for boys and parents have to get involved by agreeing to turn off the X-box and read with their kids. Dads can help by showing their boys a good role model, but if it were essential my father would never have learnt to read as his dad wasn’t around when he was at school and nowadays there are alot of single mum families around, so do we write them off?? NO! As with all other areas of the curriculum, teachers are fighting against the X-Boxes, lack of parental support, being tired because they go to sleep so late and sadly not everything can be learnt outside – at some point you have to knuckle down and concentrate on writing and reading…..children don’t develop their concentration skills as much now that computer games are so realistic….blame the computers and the parents……….its not always the teachers!!!

  • 3. Council for Learning Outside the Classroom  |  September 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    I agree that the methods demonstrated by Gareth Malone in this series don’t just benefit boys, but actually I don’t think it matters what group is being worked with. What is important is that the programme is showcasing the positive impacts a creative approach to curriculum planning can have in re motivating children who are disengaged from their education and who are not achieving their full potential as a result.

    Most teachers would agree that children learn best through real life experiences, but in reality many teachers perceive barriers such as concerns over health and safety, red tape or simply lack of time prevent them from incorporating more learning outside the classroom into the curriculum.

    The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom is a national charity that believes that EVERY child should have the opportunity to experience life and lessons beyond the classroom walls as a regular part of growing up. We provide practical solutions to help teachers incorporate inspiring educational experiences across the curriculum. Free online guidance to help teachers plan, run and evaluate learning outside the classroom can be found on our website at http://www.lotc.org.uk and teachers should look for the Learning Outside the Classroom Quality Badge http://www.lotcqualitybadge.org.uk when planning educational visits in order to reduce red tape and help them identify the good quality provision where risk is effectively managed.

    • 4. alecpatton  |  September 20, 2010 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for getting in touch! I’m a big fan of your work (and rather beautifully designed website) – and I’d encourage everyone reading this post to have a look at it.

      I’d encourage you to have a look at Learning Futures (www.learningfutures.org), one of the projects I’m involved with right now.

      I have to confess I haven’t seen Gareth’s second episode yet (I’ll be watching it on iplayer tonight) but I’m very much looking forward to it!

  • 5. Ann Williams  |  September 18, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    As a teacher with many years of experience, in Britain and abroad, I completely agree with Gareth’s approach. I am now working as a supply teacher in a number of schools and have seen, at first hand, how boys are dissaffected by their experiences in the classroom. In my opinion, the problem isn’t due to the fact that many boys are taught by female primary teachers (although this may play a part). It involves a host of factors including (as Gareth experienced) the boys’ perceptions that school Literacy experiences are “for girls,” and the lack of enthusiasm for literacy amongst adult (male) role models at home. It is also due to the use of an uninspiring government Literacy Framework which, until recently, took the joy out of learning and reduced the study of literature to a series of uninspiring classroom exercises and assessment targets. Hopefully, the relatively new Creative Curriculum is countering the damage done by this system.
    I can also highly recommend the approach undertaken in many International Primary Schools throughout the world, where students are taught in a dynamic, multi-disciplinary way and encouraged to be risk-takers! The aim is to bring JOY into learning- and it works! This curriculum is called the Primary Years Programme and is organised by the International Baccalaureat Organisation (see http://www.ibo.org).
    It would be good to have more male teachers in primary schools. However, many changes can be made if female teachers recognise that boys are essentially different to girls, that they need a different pedagogical approach which, as Gareth states, involves more competition, risk-taking and physical activity.
    I had planned to use the issues raised in “Extraordinary School” as part of a dissertation for a Masters degree I’m working on this year, I was thrilled to see that Gareth’s programme coincidentally appeared at a time when it is particularly personally relevant to me. Thanks, Gareth!

  • 6. Cheryl  |  September 24, 2010 at 10:13 am

    I have been watching this series with great interest and think that Gareth’s approach is spot on, and he has highlighted the different factors that affect children’s learning, i.e. parental involvement, positive role models, X-Boxes etc. I loved getting to know these boys and see them develop, I wish all schools and all children could be taught like this, without worrying so much about litigation, health & safety etc. I agree with the points above, that girls would also benefit – but it is true at the moment that boys, more than girls, are disengaged and underachieving. Learning is cool, boys are just as capable and competition and physical activity should not be limited. Well done Gareth and the BBC!

  • 7. girlunderground  |  September 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Given the amount of time and resources, it would have been extremely surprising if Gareth hadn’t raised the reading age of the children he was working with. The opportunities to take part in a small group treasure hunt, to fight with enough swords and shields for everyone, to choose beautiful new books and to feel special are fantastic and I have to confess to being surprised that the boys didn’t do even better than they did. We are about to start going through a time of intense cuts in school budgets but I have never known a time when it would be possible to procure enough toy swords and shields for a whole class to have a battle – or enough of the same book for everyone to read it at the same time – let alone enough new books focussed towards one age range and area of interest for students to regularly be reading the same book.

    As a teacher I wish I could take something useful from this series. I think it is impossible to separate the amount of time and resources from his basic premise that boys need to be more active and competitive in the classroom. This programme showed that children can learn – but it didn’t show how.

  • 8. Liz  |  November 22, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Children are different – all of them. The boy girl distinction is ridiculous and limiting. Brains are not set in stone and if people stop this outrageous stereotyping and start paying children some individual attention and responding to them like people instead of just requiring compliance and conformity we might actually inspire some children to want to learn something. I really like Gareth Malone but I felt very sorry for the girls in that school who may also have been bored witless.

  • 9. Anon  |  May 13, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Putting stupid adverts on Spotify asking people who don’t like classical music to change their playlists is what 4 year-olds do, everyone has different tastes, how boring if everyone listened to classical. You can’t get children to like classical because they don’t like classical you stupid idiot.

    Gareth, I will listen to classical and change my playlist if you change yours to Nightwish & Alestorm, that would be fair.

    What a jerk


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