Posted by: Natalie | September 9, 2010

Preaching the Obvious

I would like to apologise in advance for any ranty-ness that may come from this post. Tonight, BBC2 begins its ‘school season’ with Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School For Boys. The trailers show this ‘revolutionary’ teacher running around, ‘play-fighting’, climbing trees and being ‘dangerous’ in order to get boys engaged in learning. Brilliant! You might think. But these trailers are enough to have me almost screaming at the television.

It is a given these days that boys are generally falling behind the girls with regards to early education. There are countless educational studies that suggest boys simply do not learn at the same rate as girls in these early years, as well as learning in a different way. But it is only this second area of reasoning that major TV channels seem to focus on, the BBC being the latest preacher. Girls tend to act, in the most part, a little like a sponge and accept given fact while boys need to experiment as to why and how. Without making the whys and hows interactive and, dare I say, actually interesting the information rarely sticks with context.

So, here comes the latest in a line of ‘enlightening’ programmes to tell the world how it should be – that boys need to feel risk and excitement and interest when learning. Another programme suggesting lessons should be outside and in places free from restraint, that boys should not be pegged behind a table forced to write every last detail. Another programme to promote fun in learning. Now, this might come as a shock to programmers, but any good teacher ALREADY KNOWS THIS!

Maybe, instead of righteously condemning the country’s good teachers who strive endlessly to engage their pupils, programme makers could look at the reasons as to why these adventure style teachings don’t go on. Or more to the point, why they can’t go on. Schools have finite resources for a start and a pitiful amount of money to spend. What money they do have is often over-spent as it is on simple day to day resources and simple basic needs. The average government funded school is incapable of being able to cater for such frivolity, regardless of how important its need. I won’t even begin to delve into the health and safety debacle that would inevitably correspond.

Instead, local authorities are compelled to spend their cash on countless ‘government initiatives’ to bridge such gaps in learning and to intervene in all those children behind in reading, writing and maths. This is of course wonderful (if not a little misdirected at times) but surely, if ALL teachers had the skill, resource and freedom to provide ‘fun’ learning from the get-go, less money would need to be poured into these exceptionally expensive and, more often than not, pointless projects.

Which brings me to bureaucracy. There is so much red tape surrounding schools that Father Christmas could wrap an infinite number of presents and infinite number of times. It is completely ridiculous and unworkable (one of the reasons I left full time teaching). There are so many dos and don’ts and hoops to jump through that our educational forces are simply too exhausted to create the interactive curriculum required, they simply do not have the time. If there was a little more trust in schools (I appreciate this is a very difficult thing to instil when there are still so many poor teachers working in the world) and a lot less paper work, the surviving good teachers could provide a curriculum that not only addressed the vastly different learning styles but the slower pace of learning that boys tend to follow.

And to be honest, suggesting that we teachers don’t know that boys need to run around and laugh when learning is more than a little insulting. One of my favourite series of lessons I designed for my ten year olds led up to writing various types of report. One morning we were suddenly alerted to an ‘accident’ in the hall by an older pupil. My class, boys and girls, ran down to the hall to find a classmate ‘murdered’. They then had to use clues in the hall to locate the ‘murder weapon’. Once we had collated the initial information (and the child in question was allowed to sit up again – by the way, he was a ‘dramatic’ so he loved playing dead. He even put out his red jumper to make it look like blood on the floor!) we returned to the classroom where my amazing TA had turned around the pre-prepared ‘murder inquiry board’. On this I had already pinned photos, witness statements (I had written) from both pupils and staff, and various other CSI type documents. There were red herrings thrown in, twists and turns in relationships, all very Morse – I was so proud of myself it was embarrassing!

They then followed the project through, learning higher order reading skills to deduce the answer, as well as producing further statements, police reports, news paper and TV reports. It took about six weeks in all, but from this starter the children were captivated. The board stayed in place and each child had a set of post-its so whenever a thought occurred they could add to it – at any time of the school day. But we were able to include videos and books which also had an element of our theme. Children, some for the first time, were going to the library to find books that fit with our subject. For me it was so invigorating and I do truly miss making such lessons – OK, they might not have involved climbing trees, but the very best I could do with time and resource.

But, even though I have a very different role now, I still do not ignore the fundamental issues with boys learning. My corner is designed specifically with them in mind – for most of the interactive elements we will need to sit on the floor, I have devised games which involve jumping around and using lots of space, I have a whole host of resources which are ‘non-girly’ (dinosaurs and monsters rather than using the ‘shop’). But I have the benefit of being able to work with one child at a time – which brings me to another issue I doubt Gareth Malone has addressed; do we think perhaps our class sizes are too big? There are many corners of the world where the government are capping class numbers at 12 and 15. Contrast that with 36 plus in many places on top of all the other issues mentioned above.

So, no I won’t be watching BBC2 tonight. I don’t really want to put a book/laptop/fist/shoe through Steve’s posh telly. Obviously, I could be very wrong and the programme may be hard hitting on the above, highlighting to the world the pathetic state our education system is in. But I doubt it. Until the system has had an overhaul you will continue to see these gaps, because teachers, believe it or not, are not superhuman. Most work damn hard, do a damn good job yet for BBC2, it’s still not good enough.

For any teacher’s reading – continue fighting the good fight, and don’t let the buggers get you down.



  1. Quite! I saw the trailer – gave a loud tut -was about to go off on one and then thought -don’t waste your energy ranting. My husband chuckled away knowing exactly what I was thinking.

    It’s cheap, lazy, entertaining (if you’re not a teacher) tv drama – and is as fictionalised and unrealistic as Waterloo Road.

    I agree with all you say about paperwork – I’m feeling overwhelmed by it – it just gets worse each year.

    But you and I know that teaching is an art, it’s creative and you have to take the long view. It’s not about soundbites and bold extravaganzas that can’t be sustained. We have to prepare our pupils for the real – sometimes harsh – world. Life isn’t endlessly entertaining. As Bill Gates said , ‘If you think you’re teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss’.

    Of course we use every trick in the book to engage our pupils. We try as many approaches as there are children sometimes, we have fun, we have some extraordinary breakthroughs and leaps forward – but some of the time it’s teeth gritttingly challenging and hard going. Just like life.

    Dear sweet Gareth – he’s not stumbled upon anything new – but bless! It may be good telly but I’d like to see him do it year in year out, on a pitiful budget, in a decrepit school and off camera. Yeah right like that’s going to happen!

    Don’t let them wind you up. Keep doing the great job you do and keep on enjoying it and feeling proud. You change lives and get paid for it – how cool is that?!

    Anne 🙂

    • Hi Anne,

      Yeah, I did wonder if simply taking a deep breath would have been a better course of action than ranting! But sadly, the boy friend was out so the internet got the brunt of it!! I do feel sorry for the partners of teachers, they try their best to understand our frustrations but there are so may varied ones that it must be exhausting for them too.

      I completely agree – I would love to see him ‘perform’ on a regular basis. Its like watching the training videos they insist on showing on away-days and alike – there’s no sense of reality or application to the real teacher in the real classroom. But, we do have to take these with a pinch of salt and a deep breath. Its just a shame that such a large amount of money is pumped into justifying these ‘bureaucratic’ jobs.

      Gah. I have to let it go! Otherwise I will loose the plot again 😉

      Thanks for the comment Anne, hope you are well and keeping on top of the to-do list!

      Natalie x

  2. One of my biggest concerns with educating boys is that 50% of the population (men) are (in this country at least) automatically labeled as pedophiles if they show an interest in teaching (especially primary education).

    This means that boys are taught by women without the benefit of male role models and men’s-style interaction.

    If there was a gender balance in teaching I think our boys might have a better chance because they would see men and women equally involved in educating them; education wouldn’t merely be women’s business (boy do I hope that comes out right – I’m not having a go at teachers but rather commenting that boys do actually need men to help them to grow up to be men).

    A gender balance would help address the bad press that teachers get because the other 50% of students (boys) might start to show improvement.

    But that’s just my views. I am transgendered so I have experienced life on both sides of the gender divide. This comment is not intended as criticism of women, merely acknowledging that we need 100% of the adults (i.e. men and women) in our society teaching and raising all 100% of our children (i.e. boys and girls). And to acknowledge the difficult task faced by teachers.

    • Hi Herb,

      Yep, absolutely right. The scaremongering of the trash press (and actually some of the more ‘reputable’ broadsheets too) have a hell of a lot to answer for. Its hard work for men to become primary teachers, particularly in the infants, especially in, dare I say, areas of ‘economic deprivation’. There is such an awful blame culture now that self preservation is a crucial aspect for male teachers. And this is an awful shame, because I agree – there needs to be a gender balance. The best teachers I come across in Primary are actually the male teachers (I often wonder if it is because they still have the mind of an eight year old at times!) for both boys and girls. There is a slightly different atmosphere in their classroom (I have no real idea what it is) but there is something that feels ‘electric’ and engaging – the children respond!

      But it’s not just a lack of male teachers – the assistants and mentors all seem to be women as well. Those who are struggling in school receive all their extra support from women. And the men that do come into education? Always moved up into management and therefore become a little feared by the children because they are often sent to these individuals for ‘discipline’. Its all wrong. And so obviously wrong.

      In these deprived areas, I think the gender balance is even more important as they still have quite ‘backwards’ ideas about gender roles. Most children in these places come from broken homes or care homes and therefore often don’t have any positive male role model in their lives. This is when school is such an important tool, not just for providing a safe, happy environment, but one in which the outside world can be represented. This is also why the male teachers seem to succeed where the females don’t, because it is such a novel experience for so many.

      And from a selfish point of view, a staffroom which includes male colleagues is always a much friendlier and entertaining place than one that is purely filled with women. Not wishing to be mean on my sex, but a building full of women is often my idea of hell!

      Thanks for the comments Herby, so important and much dismissed by the powers that be. Hope you are well my dear,

      Nat x

  3. Speaking as a mother of three, the oldest being a 10 year old boy, this programme has been very helpful.
    My son has really struggled with reading over the past year, and this series has shown him he is not alone.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. I know I had a little rant but it was purely from a teacher’s angle – we are constantly told we do not do enough to help our boys when in actual fact, given the list of issues I suggested in the article, we do as much as we physically can. I would imagine the programme is a little relief for many parents however who feel precisely as you do. I would imagine these fears over achievement can make a parent feel isolated and actually quite scared. The programme has indeed been a benefit for such an instance and I am glad you have found some comfort and support from it. I would always be more than happy to suggest further pointers to help your sons if you wish. Feel free to drop me an email any time you wish, I will always be more than happy to help.

      Thanks for reading,

      Take care,


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