Sarah Sands: We could learn some lessons from 'The Choir'

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The Independent Online

Once I stopped being a newspaper editor, I began to notice a discrepancy between the sorts of things journalists were interested in and what their readers liked. Journalists like crime and politics and sex. Readers care about gardening and, as it turns out, singing.

The BBC series The Choir won a Bafta and its sequel, Boys Don't Sing, which finished on Friday, has been one of the best things on television. There has been little fuss about it in the press, but at the school gates and in the garden centre it is very big news.

The premise is simple: a classically trained music teacher called Gareth Malone goes into a large boys' secondary school in the Midlands and forms a choir. The poignancy is exquisite. First he has to win over the male sports staff by enticing them into a staff choir. Their suspicion and fear of ridicule are apparent in their expressions, which then turn to surprise and, finally, mildly embarrassed joy.

More profoundly moving is the transformation of the boys from yawning, hostile creatures to enlightened ones. The political approach to education has been to shore up children's confidence by removing effort and competition. Music cannot be fudged. Malone is pushing a boulder and you feel his strain and disappointment. But he does not give up and eventually his choir makes it to the Albert Hall.

This is reality television, which means that it is not. The Lancaster choir is not heavenly. My brother was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral; those voices were divine gifts but the execution was human. The cathedral boys worked hours that would appal a human rights lawyer. The funny thing is that they did not mind because they were excited by high achievement.

Educationalists complain that children these days are under too much pressure, but it is the bureaucracy of pastoral care that wears them out. Last summer, I watched the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela perform at Lucerne under their genius conductor Gustavo Dudamel. They had practised relentlessly and looked scruffy and dehydrated. They were also ecstatic.

The Lancaster school choir featured on the BBC is not world class or even national class, but its members are better than they ever thought they could be. Gareth Malone has become a national hero. His MySpace site is crowded with comments from viewers across the world. One relished "the look of terror on the faces of the boys when confronted with other choirs and realising they needed to up their game and then giving their all and feeling great". Another thanked Malone for bringing passion back to teaching.

Scroll down and you find some shyer messages. "Hello Sir, I hope you are coming to visit us sometime soon. Lancaster is not as good and you should come and check on the choir." Finally, the cocky longing of another pupil. "Hey Gareth, Howz u doin the showz have been wikid like crazy ru cumin bak to lancaster?" Pretty much word for word what the von Trapp children wrote to Maria in The Sound of Music.

It is said that men think the worst of themselves for not being soldiers. I feel diminished because I am not a teacher. The Choir is sensational television because Gareth Malone is moulding young minds, forming young characters, before your very eyes. You see schools as they should be: a strong, respected headmaster, an ethos of inspiration. Above all, you see the wonderful spirit of children, the rebel who performed brilliantly at the Albert Hall, the son of immigrant parents from Vietnam who felt they had reached their journey's end, the boy with cancer who declared himself a fighter. Who would have thought a school choir would be a metaphor for an ideal society.