The nation’s favourite choir boy, Gareth Malone, returned to our screens to complete a new mission - decreasing the literacy gap between the sexes. To do so he has used the outdoors and a range of
unconventional teaching methods. Malone believes that school is not dynamic enough for boys and that by making lessons fun, competitive and risky he can get them to engage with and improve their reading and writing skills. His work is very important because boys’, on average, trial behind girls
academically in reading and writing from the age of 7 onwards. While this unfair disparity must be addressed if we want to improve the literacy of all children, presenting the outdoors as a gendered space, only for boys, risks limiting the chance for all children to take part in outdoor education when
numerous studies highlight the benefits of it for both sexes.
In Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys, screened by the BBC over the past few weeks, we have been introduced to the group of boys whose reading and writing age he seeks to increase by 6 months in just 8 weeks. One of the first changes Malone implements is to insist his group
do physical education every day (compared to the usual 2 hours per week), take part in competitive learning games and spend time exploring their local environments. Unsurprisingly this new regime seems to go down well, because most children want more opportunities to explore and learn about natural environments, as confirmed by recent research by The Countryside Alliance Foundation. Some 85 per cent of children surveyed by the charity want opportunities to go fishing or visit farms through school. While the new found energy and enthusiasm among Malone’s boys is welcomed, sceptical teachers remained unconvinced about the efficacy of outdoor education.
The real challenge for Malone was proving to the staff that his unconventional teaching methods and
use of the outdoors results in enthusiasm for books and higher literacy scores among the boys. It is in this conundrum where Malone exposes himself to the dangerous gender stereotypes that hold boys’ back from higher literacy scores and risk undermining the opportunity of girls to take part in experiential learning. When Malone enquires about his group’s interest in books, he is met with highly gender stereotyped responses, “reading is a girls’ thing”, “my dad doesn’t read, my mum does – it’s just not a man’s thing”. Even after Malone allowed the boys’ to ‘butch’ up the library and purchase their own ‘boys’ books’ the reading test results were disappointing. Listening to the parental responses it became very clear the challenge Gareth was up against, “he’s not
interested in books, he prefers his Xbox, but his sister is happy just reading”. This felt like a depressing acquiescence to a belief that boys disinterest in reading is some how innate rather than a self perpetuating gender myth.
However, myths are powerful things and Malone recognised that a key to success is getting the dad’s to help their son’s. In the series, he organises a story telling session around a camp fire and an evening under the stars. But the initiative comes against some cautious resistance by the head teacher, whose health and safety radar starts to ferociously bleep when the words ‘fire’, ‘using knives and saws’ and ‘camping’ are used. With all the right procedures followed, the group turns the school’s wood into a scout’s lair. It is clear that the enjoyment both the fathers and sons get out of preparing their tents and building fires is a rare bonding experience – one Gareth hopes will help in his mission to improve literacy. As the night drew in, the dads are instructed to take it in
turn to read to the group, to demonstrate that boys can do all these ‘masculine’ activities and still enjoy reading too. The campout was an excellent activity to promote fathers as ambassadors for reading among boys, and unsurprisingly the boys subsequently scored significantly higher on
literacy tests after active parental involvement in their home reading. However, some of comments made in relation to the campout are offensive and also damaging to the ethos that outdoor education should be available to all.
Malone states that taking part in activities, referred to by health and safety guidelines as ‘dangerous’, boys gain confidence to tackle problems - fair comment. He goes on to say that he deliberately wanted to take them out of the school’s ‘girl friendly environment where activities focused on sitting around eating cakes’ to one where the boys could take risks, like cutting branches, making fires and
camping out’ – unfair comment. Schools’ risk aversion is not about feminisation, it’s about the sanitisation of school environments underpinned by an unnecessary fear about health and safety and litigation which is damaging all of children – so let’s not assign a gender to a universal and persistent problem.
So just how unnecessary is this fear? Recent research has uncovered that over the last ten years only 364 legal claims have been made for injuries sustained by children on school visits, with each successful payout on average totalling just £293. However, despite such low levels of litigation and compensation payouts, some 76 per cent of teachers say health and safety is the biggest barrier to outdoor learning. With such warped perceptions of risk, its no wonder schools prefer outdoor activities focused on ‘sitting around eating cakes’, compared to those where children can take risks and learn about themselves in the process. The sterility of children’s education has nothing to do with some surreptitious attempt to feminise boys as Malone seems to be implying. However, it has
everything to do with the insidious nature of health and safety and our surrender to a belief that we live in a ‘compensation culture’ when the facts tell a very different story.
Malone is a great ambassador for outdoor learning and creative teaching methods, and let’s hope
the series inspires more teachers to embrace outdoor environments to engage both girls and boys. It’s worth remembering that whilst on average girls do better than boys in reading and writing, averages miss those across the literacy spectrum who stand to benefit from outdoor learning. The great outdoors is open to all children who deserve to be actively encouraged to play and learn in it.
If we’re frustrated by our schools approach to health and safety and the outdoors, then lets start addressing these irrational fears rather than looking for gender scapegoats.