Being a schoolboy is not a special need

In his new BBC show, affable choirmaster Gareth Malone joins the chorus of complaints about underachieving lads.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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To those who are no longer immersed in education and for whom school days are more a traumatic memory rather than a professional or familial affair, the contemporary obsession with schoolboys can seem curious. They’re misbehaving, they’re underachieving, they’re getting fat. ‘Problems with boys’ is no longer a typical Just 17 agony column headline, but a matter of heated academic debate.

Into this discussion walks choirmaster Gareth Malone, who seems like the kind of non-threatening, heartbroken boy who featured in many a Just Seventeen agony column. In his new BBC2 series, Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys, it appears he is trying to do for literacy what Jamie Oliver did for healthy eating. Malone, a trained musician, made a name for himself encouraging schoolboys and the underprivileged to take up choral singing in the hit series Boys Don’t Sing and The Choir.

Despite its annoying forging-community-cohesion-through-arts conceit, The Choir was a pleasure to watch. Malone’s quaint combination of boyish affability and authoritarian choirmastery was a winning and often inspirational formula. Like the best of teachers, he seems to balance an enthusiasm for his subject with a seemingly limitless amount of patience while wearing a nifty array of cardigans (he’s 35).

The formula for ‘inspirational teacher’ programmes like this one can be easily discerned from the first episode of the series. Firstly, you have to set up the scale of the problem that our hero has to tackle. So you plonk a bunch of obliging kiddies in front of a TV camera and get them to say how much they hate X (usually whatever government buzzword is doing the rounds in policy circles – here it’s ‘literacy’) and how much they prefer Y (a fun and bad thing like TV). Ideally, this is said in urchin-like tones. So here we had lots of spiky-haired kids popping up to tell us ‘We don’t know nuffink about literacy’ or ‘I’d ravver play Xbox than do literacy’ and we all gasp and despair and hope our gallant hero can do something about it.

So is Malone the ideal person to instil a love of reading in the nation’s children? Not quite. To start with, as became agonisingly apparent in the first episode, teachers and pupils don’t even talk about ‘reading’ or ‘writing’ anymore. Instead, the generic ‘literacy’ is the new-ish educational buzzword. I seem to recall somebody towards the end of the programme mentioning that literacy is in some way connected to reading books, but they were keeping it very quiet. Rather than pondering the inherently uninspiring educational message this seemed to set out – that education isn’t about giving you an insight into the world but instead equipping you with the skills to read government health warnings, usually about how disgusting you are – we were told that boys are failing because they’re taught in classrooms, which are not suited to their boisterous character. So Malone got them to make their own study area in the forest behind the school, brought back rough-and-tumble playground games such as British Bulldog, and dressed up as a highwayman and let them chase him around.

I assume the pleasure of watching these programmes is the heady sense of cognitive dissonance they create through the giddy quickfire interplay between the perfectly reasonable and the preposterous. It has been a point long made on spiked that risk aversion around children is having a deeply detrimental impact, depriving kids of perfectly normal rough-and-tumble games and confining them indoors to protect them from the allegedly omnipresent danger posed by adults and other children. As several of the teachers noted, outside of a television experiment, they’d never be allowed to engage in the kind of frolics Malone encourages. I’d be all for schools, and society, relaxing its restrictions on children’s games and letting them arse about in the outdoors – but it is quite another thing for schools to replace the actual teaching of stuff with playtime, as Malone does here for three days a week.

Is the best way to tackle boys’ alleged intellectual inferiority complex really to restructure the entire Western educational method around them? Being a schoolboy is not a special need: it doesn’t need to be catered for beyond the actual process of schooling. Even the most ardent critic of contemporary grade inflation would have to concede that all those boys from private and state schools with handfuls of A*s at A-level are at least literate, if not educated.

It was this which came across as most insulting about the programme. Anyone who has taught knows that good teaching requires not only a variety of skills, but the ability to adapt to circumstances and the individual needs of students as one goes along. One doesn’t need to be sentimental about mortar-board wearing schoolmasters stood in front of a chalkboard to recognise that these kind of gimmicky quick-fix teaching methods will never function as a one-size-fits-all solution to how to transmit knowledge.

What nobody seemed interested in was the question of what was being taught. Literacy is merely a tool; it is not the goal of education. Of course that doesn’t make as good television as arseing about in a forest, but that’s why television shows used to be about fiction (which can be as dramatic and interesting as you want) or fact-based documentaries and news which sought to educate you about the world. A TV programme about education itself is never going to be entertaining or arresting to non-teachers, unless you make it about something else.

Given the phenomenal amount of educational resources being offered to them over the course of the experiment, the boys will no doubt improve their literacy. But when the cameras are gone, we’re all going to be left with more meddling and interference in schools, more undermining of teachers’ authority, more deference to spurious evidence-based methods over teachers’ lived experience and no concern about the educational content itself.

Malone is an amiable man, and no doubt an excellent teacher of music and drama, but this is a cynical programme. At least Saint Jamie Oliver needed to play the saviour of the obese to distract from the fact he was a prize Mockney prick; the amiable and popular Malone needs no such instant sainthood, and the apparent sincerity makes his involvement in this deceitful and dim-witted programme all the worse. Gareth’s not singing anymore, but I wish he was.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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