Musharaf Asghar: from Educating Yorkshire to Stammer School

After winning the public's hearts in Channel 4's Educating Yorkshire, 'Mushy' Musharaf Asghar returns to our screens to conquer his stammer once and for all.

"Mushy" Photo: Two Four Production/ Channel 4

Musharaf Asghar, or "Mushy" is one of four other stammerers trying to find their voice with the McGuire Programme Photo: Two Four Production/ Channel 4

By Julia Llewellyn Smith - The Telegraph Aug 22, 2014

 Of all the “stars” of last year’s Channel 4 hit Educating Yorkshire – Bailey with the shaved eyebrows, delinquent Kamrem, bombastic headteacher Mr Mitchell – none won viewers’ hearts as much as 17-year-old “Mushy” Musharaf Asghar.

A chronic stammerer since childhood, Mushy, from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, was struggling with the oral part of his GCSE English, worth 20 per cent of the total mark. His teacher, Mr Burton, was in despair until by chance he watched the The King’s Speech, about how George VI overcame his stammer by addressing the nation while listening to music through headphones, which distracted him when reading aloud.

Using the same technique, Mushy gained his vital C grade, enabling him to go to college. When he delivered a thank you speech to the school, teachers and fellow pupils wept, as did many of the seven-million-plus viewers of the clip on YouTube.

But a small group of viewers were less moved and more outraged by what they were seeing. “I was yelling at the television, and social media was buzzing with stammerers saying: ‘You’ve got it all wrong’,” says Rich Whincup, a staff trainer on the McGuire Programme, a course for stammerers taught by recovering stammerers.

The headphones method, it transpires, may succeed temporarily. “But it only works for a very limited amount of time,” Whincup explains. “The first time you hit a major block, you realise you’re still stammering just wearing headphones. The psychological benefits disappear and the stammer returns.” 

Determined to help Mushy, the Programme, which has thousands of “graduates” worldwide, including hundreds in the UK, contacted Mushy via Channel 4. The result was Stammer School: Musharaf Finds His Voice, in which Mushy and four other young stammerers attend one of its four-day, privately funded, residential courses.

From the first meeting, when the group was filmed stuttering through answers to basic questions, it was obvious that Mushy was very far from cured.

“In more than 10 years leading courses, I’ve met two people not able to say a single word on the first night and Mushy was one of them; he couldn’t even get out the first letter of his name,” says Whincup. A former stammerer himself (“I couldn’t even say ‘good morning’ ”), Whincup went on to have his own local radio show and is now a university lecturer and motivational coach.

During the course, participants learn methods devised 20 years ago by US-born Dave McGuire. Because its techniques aren’t yet supported by official research, the Programme isn’t endorsed by speech therapists, although many still recommend it.

According to Whincup, stammering has both physiological and psychological causes. “The theory is a misfiring left side of the brain confuses messages to the voicebox and then, when you become aware of it, you’re hit by the psychological impact and it gets worse.”

Participants learn “costal” breathing used by opera singers, where air enters the lungs and the stomach expands. They also study a psychological technique known as “non-avoidance”, where they confront their stammer, rather than dodging “difficult” words. On day three, they’re sent out into the street to talk to 100 strangers. On day four, each speaks to a packed room.

Alongside Mushy was Vicky Croft, a 23-year-old recruitment manager from Liversedge. Until Christmas, Croft was an “outgoing person, you couldn’t shut me up”. But a small stroke left her stammering.

“It was shattering,” she tells me, her speech now only faintly stumbling. “Often I’d have to text my mum when I was sitting right next to her, because I couldn’t say anything. Once they wouldn’t allow me into a bar, they thought I was too drunk. I thought: ‘Am I going to be a recluse for the rest of my life?’ ”

Initially sceptical, Croft was addressing a crowded pub within days, leaving the production crew in tears. “I’ve never not cried during a course,” says Whincup. “It’s a very emotional thing, seeing people who’d lost hope, find this confidence.”

Viewers’ tears, however, will mainly be reserved for Mushy who, since the Programme, has been able to further his dream of becoming a teacher; returning to his old school, Thornhill Academy, for work experience.

His battle’s still far from won, however. My meeting and phone call with him are cancelled – presumably as too stressful. “Stammer school has helped me a lot,” he eventually emails. “It’s giving me the chance not to overcome my stammer but to control it.”

Relapses are common, but, like all McGuire “graduates”, Mushy is allowed to return to as many Programmes as necessary. “Mushy made the progress you would hope and he has his whole life ahead of him,” says Whincup, who’s in constant phone contact with him. Mushy sums up: “If I could speak fluently, I would show people who I really am.”

Stammer School begins on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday August 28