I don’t often watch school programmes on the telly, because they tend to make me shouty and sweary. Waterloo Road is an obvious exception because, well, have you seen it? Then you know.
However, I found myself sucked into Gareth Malone’s Dangerous School for Boys which assumed that boys need more physical exercise, and specialised teaching to help them bridge the literacy gap with girls. The programme showed the best and the worst of primary education. Unfortunately for the teaching profession, the best came from a preternaturally youthful choirmaster and the worst came from pessimistic teachers.
Gareth’s teaching was vibrant. Writing their own musical, decorating the library, choosing books: it was all just fantastic. And I found myself feeling sorry for the girls. Presumably they were stuck in the classroom with their regular lessons while the boys toasted marshmallows and played Ladders (I love Ladders).
I know the programme was about closing the gap between boys and girls. I know the girls were achieving more, in terms of reading ages and testing, but does this mean that teaching was meeting the girls’ needs but not the boys'? I’m not sure it does.
Girls’ and boys’ brains do not really differ in any notable way. The learning needs of children are really best not categorised by gender. There are obviously societal influences, but primary age children are still at a developmental stage where the biggest influence in their lives is parental. OK, non-reading Dads were highlighted in the programme as an issue, but I can’t believe all the Mums were sitting down with Dostoyevsky of an afternoon. Not when Dinner Date is on.
I don’t think that boys need specialized teaching. What worked for them in this case was participation in an amazing learning experience and literacy made relevant. This is what all children need, boys and girls.
Yes, the girls tested better but that doesn’t mean that the teaching was doing its job of creating lifelong learners. With boys the effects of poor teaching and an irrelevant curriculum are immediate: low test scores and acting out in class. Working in EBD outreach, our referrals for boys outnumbered girls by about 20 to 1, not because girls experienced no emotional or behavioural problems but because their difficulties didn’t tend to trouble teachers or put them at risk of exclusion. With limited resources, you’ll refer the boy setting fire to his classmates ahead of the girl with an eating disorder, sexual health concerns, depression, or school phobia.
Girls tend to perform acceptably at school in spite of personal difficulties or less than inspiring teaching. But when they get older will they value their education? What will they aspire to? Will they be enthused enough and confident enough to go for the important jobs that make a difference to us all? It’s not till well after the testing stops that we see the impact of poor teaching on girls.
All children deserve an extraordinary education. Every Child A Marshmallow Toaster.