Gender and Education in the Media: an extraordinary revival of boys’ own stories?

At the start of the new school or academic year, UK broadcaster the BBC, in its wisdom, has decided to present a ‘school season’ in television programmes about the challenges of schooling and, of course, the focus was either gender-blind or specifically about boys! There are 4 programmes – Unequal Opportunities, Excluded, Britain’s Youngest Boarders and Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary school for boys – that bear comment.

What the programmes amount to is an anti-intellectual and anti-educational approach: they revive traditional dilemmas and turn them into 21st century truisms or even homilies about how we should educate our sons. They are presented like many reality TV programmes and the basic premise is that we all know what learning is about and how to encourage it. These programmes will help re-assert class-based knowledge, educational theories or practices that reinforce gender stereotypes, whilst at the same time acknowledging the educational and social transformations in women’s work.

Given the now easy access and mobile media that are used by almost everyone, it is perhaps no surprise that the BBC, with its ‘all singing and dancing’ website, and very simple means of viewing round-the-clock, should devote a lot of viewing time to questions of schooling and/or learning. 13 years ago, Blair’s New Labour mantra of ‘education, education, education’ dominated the new government’s domestic and public policy agenda. With the new UK coalition government barely 4 months old it does seem appropriate to question what is now going on with schools and how equal they have become.

What the future might hold for children (whether girls or boys), parents (mums and dads), and beyond schools and into further or higher education, universities and employment is also now of interest and even anxiety. These questions are now much more discussed in the media, especially over the summer, with exam results dominating agendas, and girls’ success at GCSE and A levels, now so evident that all the imagery is of smiling and whooping girls … almost always nice, white and middle class.

Perhaps as an antidote to this kind of portrayal of educational achievement and hopeful social mobility, the BBC has developed a series of alternative pictures of boys. But who are the programmes aimed at? Will the children or their parents watch and learn anything? How will they inform educational policies and practices?

Equality is presented very traditionally. Social class or educational disadvantage with boys in secondary school was the core theme of two of the programmes (John Humphrys of Radio 4’s Today programme on Unequal Opportunities and Excluded, a drama about a newly qualified maths teacher, Ian, coping with a disruptive boy).

John Humphrys did his own research on secondary schools around the question of the ‘achievement gap’ and social mobility for a special hour-long programme. Without discussing different notions such as the ‘gender gap’, his programme included interviews with a Professor of Education and asking about boys’ and parental anxieties about educational futures. All the imagery was of struggling boys in school uniforms (including two portrayals on the BBC website). Mumsnet, the mothers’ online pressure group for, and advice about, parental choice came in for a lot of implied criticism – extending advantage to the already advantaged white middle classes. And yet no alternative policies were proposed, although the programme provided a critique of sorts.

Excluded, on the other hand, portrayed a white working class boy, becoming disruptive as he witnessed and went through his parents’ messy separation. He was defended by his maths teacher against the other unsympathetic mainly male teachers, especially a bullying art teacher. The women in the programme are portrayed as soft or weak but not necessarily subordinate. For example, the headteacher is a woman and portrayed as being committed to inclusive practices, curiously taking it upon herself to decide without a case conference about how to deal with the mother of the disruptive lad. The drama ends with the implied criticism of the head for only giving the boy a week’s suspension against official advice and the other teachers. And yet in a complex twist the new maths teacher is also seen as vindicated in his support for a ‘budding mathematician’, given his poor home circumstances: naivety perhaps?

The other two programmes, about primary schools, make boys explicitly the centre of attention, although the class divide is also evident. Britain’s Youngest Boarders traced the lives of 3 upper middle class boys (one called Clegg) leaving home aged 8 to go to an exclusive boys’ prep school in anticipation of going on to either Eton or Harrow (the top private schools in England). The boys’ and their mothers’ feelings are explored in some depth: burying feelings of home-sickness is part of the essential quality of becoming an educated and successful man. Mothers, true to tradition, bury their feelings of loss, to ensure the success of their baby sons. Training in interviewing skills for leadership and adulthood is also emphasised by the Cameron-sounding head as he prepares the boys for early interviews at Harrow! Learning how to compete successfully is the essence of the educational approaches at the school: performances in music and drama are also important and the programme ends with one of the young boys’ singing performance.


Oddly, traditional educational approaches are side-stepped in the 3 part series entitled Gareth Malone’s Extraordinary School for Boys. A primary headteacher in a suburban school in Harlow, Essex, South England, has invited a young choirmaster – Gareth Malone – to help deal with the problems of the boys’ resistance to formal learning in class. This resistance is contrasted with all the girls’ diligence and application: boys and girls are always contrasted starkly. The school’s catchment area is never described but it appears as a lower middle class white suburban environment, with plenty of green playing fields. Malone lacks any educational training and was presumably chosen on the basis of his earlier successful reality television shows in which he teaches choral singing. However, we never learn about his skills as a choirmaster and it appears that it is the fact of his being a young man with skills in performance that ‘qualifies’ him for the teaching role. He never sings in the episodes but he often wears odd clothes and dresses up as different characters: he is, in sum, a white middle class ‘short back and sides’ character. The head and the other teachers in the school, true to form, are all white women and are also cardboard caricatures of either ‘mumsy’ or rather young women.

Malone is given over 30 (all white) boys aged 9 to 11 to work with, across 3 traditional areas of the curriculum, viz literacy, reading and writing. Curiously, no mention is made of the third R – arithmetic, nor of how this fits in with the other curricular activities and what the girls and teachers are doing whilst Malone is with the boys. Occasionally we are given comments about what the two teachers think of Malone’s work with the boys, and it is not always complimentary. They think that he has made them more excitable and disruptive…

The 3 programmes explore, in turn, Malone’s ways of developing literacy, then reading and finally writing. All are about competitiveness through the prism of outdoor and sports activities. As the programmes progress, Malone becomes more adventurous, and experiments with outdoor adventures, such as exploring in the woods, climbing trees, and evening activities around campfires. The emphasis is always on competition with ‘the other’, namely girls and so the boys and girls are set up in juxtaposition to each other. In addition, all the boys spend time telling us how bored they are with aspects of lessons in school, especially traditional teaching and learning – reading and books. Their uses of computer games are often referred to as are their lack of interest in traditional activities. In the final episode, the boys learn to write by developing a play for performance in front of the whole school. Competing with the girls’ play is again emphasised.

In an extra-ordinary co-incidence both the Malone programme and the one on the boys’ boarding school reach their climax with school plays and performances. From contrasting social class and teaching perspectives, we learn again that educational success is best achieved through muscular male performances.

These programmes have left women and girls once again on the sidelines and indeed revived boys’ own stories! The future remains one likely to be dominated by the ‘gender gap’ despite the rhetoric about the (class or disadvantaged) ‘achievement gap’. Whilst girls clearly do well at school and go on to have educational careers, such as being headteachers of both primary and secondary schools, women are disproportionately represented in lower status areas of education and employment and there remains a significant gender pay gap in favour of men. Despite this, as these programmes show, public concern centres on how best to educate boys!

Miriam David, GEA Policy Officer


One thought on “Gender and Education in the Media: an extraordinary revival of boys’ own stories?

  1. I only caught about 5 minutes of Gareth Malone but I saw a really interesting show last night in the same BBC education series: The Classroom Experiment: This was a thoughtful piece of work – probably because of the guiding role of an academic researcher: Dylan Wiliam. There was also a good number of female students featured as both low and high attainers.

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