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Educating Yorkshire: Musharaf moves the nation

Steven Halliday, Cherry Hughes | 01.12.2013

The final episode of Channel 4’s documentary series Educating Yorkshire featured the powerful story of Musharaf Asghar, who has a severe stammer, as he prepared for his GCSE English oral exam at Thornhill Academy, supported by his teacher Mr Burton.

We saw Mr Burton phone Musharaf’s Speech and Language Therapist (SLT), who suggested it might be helpful if there was some background noise whilst Musharaf was talking – this made Mr Burton recall a scene from The King’s Speech, and consequently experiment with giving Musharaf earphones and playing music while he practised. This approach, along with tapping out a rhythm, seemed to help him speak more fluently than before.

At the end of the programme Musharaf talked at the Leavers’ Assembly. His heartfelt speech, thanking staff and pupils, brought a tear to the eyes of many there and, it appears, to many viewers. Musharaf successfully achieved a Grade C in English and it was clear that he had gained in confidence and self-esteem.

Musharaf said, “When I found out that cameras were coming into my school I felt excited but never thought I would end up on TV. In year seven I got bullied, but as soon as the school found out they really hammered down and made sure it stopped there and then.

‘My oral English GCSE was worth 20% of my overall mark and I was getting really stressed out about it. The poem we were working on was called The Moment, and it really was a moment I’ll remember forever. I felt so free when I put Mr Burton’s headphones on; I was able to get my words out clearly. I didn't really like the song he played but if I had to listen to all of his songs back to back for ever and could speak like that, I would do it!

‘On the day of the exam I didn't feel nervous because I had worked really hard on my speech therapy techniques (I use tapping and word visualisation). My nerves over speaking in assembly were TERRIBLE though. I had a little wobble but eventually I managed to get through it. I'm really happy and proud to be on telly as I hope it gives other people who stammer the confidence to have a go at public speaking.” (Musharaf’s comments © The Guardian, reproduced with permission.)

Sparking a debate

The programme drew a mixed response from the stammering community, as it highlighted the different attitudes to the techniques used.

BSA’s Education Officer Cherry Hughes said, “We were sorry that the school did not appear to have used our resources, but we hope that by raising the profile of stammering, the programme will encourage more schools to approach us. We have developed a series of online resources that can help staff and parents to implement successful support strategies. Visit www.stammeringineducation.net and www.stammering.org/expertparent.”

Parents - Claire McLernon wrote on Facebook, “My son is 15 and doing his GCSEs so it was brilliant for him to watch. It gave him hope; at times he feels like he's in the minority at school.” Lynsey McGhee wrote, “As a mum of a child who stammers, I can only hope that his teachers show the same dedication that was shown here.”

The teacher - Mr Burton had a pragmatic attitude and was prepared to draw on any sources of information he could find to help Musharaf tackle his speaking assessment. Understandably, Musharaf chose to try anything to get himself through it, as he is entitled to do. He needed to achieve a grade C to go on his college course. It was incredibly moving to see how much his self-esteem and confidence was boosted by his final achievement.

Therapists - SLT Claire Bull said, “I initially came away from the show feeling disappointed, firstly because the role of Musharf's SLT at a key transition point had been brushed over, and secondly because a technique learned from The king's Speech was being used as a way to 'overcome' a stammer.

'I still feel that an interview with the SLT would have been a valuable addition, to spread the word about stammering and the specialist support available, and to challenge the opinion that fluency is the goal and is always possible if clients and therapists try harder. However, as I've followed the ensuing media frenzy around Musharaf and mr Burton's admirable level of support, my reflections have been challenged as I've witnessed the emergence of an outstanding role model for teenagers in Musharaf, putting across the message, “Even if you do have a stammer, don't be afraid.” Though I still have reservations about the technique used, his increased confidence is there for all to see, and coupled with quotes like this, is an evidence base that has to be acknowledged.”

SLT Trudy Stewart said, “While it was very powerful, why did the producers take his voice away, substitute it with subtitles and have him write his words on a computer (for the pieces to camera)?

From Speaking Out Winter 2013, p4