Boys and literacy

Posted on September 10, 2010


This began life as a tweet and then migrated to Facebook.  It then exceeded their word limit so I find myself here on dear old WordPress. Anyhow, it concerns last night’s programme Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys on BBC2 in which the choirmaster tackled the problem of boys’ literacy.  Here are my thoughts.  They aren’t as neat and coherent as I might like but it was dashed of for Twittering purposes, remember.

Part 1

While Gareth Malone’s concern for boys’ literacy is admirable and the lagging behind of boys in the classroom is a concern, those boys will still go on to earn more than girls doing the same job when they eventually find themselves in the workplace.

As a tutor myself, I think Gareth Malone is inspirational and his methods genuinely innovative and exciting, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the girls who were stuck inside with no opportunity to work with Gareth and no reward for their hard work (aside from, of course, the reward that hard work brings in itself).

I also don’t think pitting boys against girls is necessarily the right way to go. If anything, it encourages separation, difference and an “us-against-them” culture. Every pupil is an individual and it is those individuals we should be teaching rather than lumping together all the pupils into clumsy brackets of “boys” and “girls”.

We were never shown the pupils’ exact scores, presumably due to confidentaility, but one lad, who was supposedly one of the pupils in need of the most attention, said he was 6th-8th in his class, depending upon the subject. The class sizes seemed fairly standard (about 25 with around equal numbers of boys and girls) so that means there *must* have been girls below him in core subjects including literacy. But those girls didn’t receive Gareth’s help because they weren’t considered the correct gender to be requiring help. Conversely I’m sure some of the boys were fine with literacy and enjoyed the classroom, but, no, they’re BOYS and therefore require help. Maybe the school overall is underachieving and all the students’ literacy scores were below par but there was no mention of that and even if it were the case, why then only focus on the boys’ scores?

There is certainly a problem with social conditioning of both boys and girls; girls must all be princesses in pink and boys must be naughty and bad at school. If you don’t fit into those boxes, you are weeeeiiiirrrrd. No kid wants to be weird, so they (happily or reluctantly) fall into line. That is I believe, where the problem lies. And it is that, that needs to be challenged.

Sadly, the only incentive the boys were given for wanting winning the debating competition was to “beat the girls”.  Surely the boys should want to win the debate for their own sense of achievement, not just to “beat the girls”. That’s an empty reason and only fosters divisions. Gareth Malone himself said to the whole school that “it pained him” to award the prize to the girls. Imagine an award being handed to you like that. Nice. He later said “damn those girls for being so good.” So it became clear that this was not about awarding achievement, it was just being reduced to beating the other team.  A real shame.

Part 2

Gender is just one aspect to take into account when teaching young people literacy.  Here are some others;

1) Are their parents together or separated? A single parent might, understandably, have less time to read to a child and consequently normalise the act of reading.

2) Are there any family problems (drink, drugs, violence etc) that might affect concentration in the classroom?

3) How affluent are the parents?

4) How involved in their children’s education are they?

5) Are the parents themselves literate? Parents whose own literacy is not too strong tend not to read to their children or encourage reading or writing at home. This is entirely understandable as illiteracy or problems with literacy can be a difficult thing for an adult and particularly a parent to admit to.

6) What is the level of the parents’ education? Parents who have higher educational qualifications are more likely to encourage this academia in their children.

7) Is the child’s birthday in the autumn term, making them the oldest in the year, or the summer term, making them the youngest? Pupils who go through school as the youngest in the year often find school life harder as those few months make a big difference at that age.

There are hundreds more, I’m sure. These are just a few I thought of off the top of my head.

All these factors are just as significant (if not more so) than gender when considering why a pupil might be struggling with literacy.

I just think this programme might be a little simplistic, that’s all. And I speak as someone who loves Gareth Malone’s work. I even had a press photo from The Choir as my desktop wallpaper for a while.  I really like Gareth Malone. Even though his definition of “superlatives” was slightly wonky.

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