My Education strikes a sour note: Student Voice vs Teachers, Round 100

7th November 2013 at 22:42

In The Lord of the flies, the noble savages of the new Eden agree on a simple method to establish who may speak: he who holds the conch shell, holds the Floor. Speaking is a political act: who may speak, how long, and when, and indeed, about what. The history of emancipation has been the history of voices stirred from silence to song. 

Which is why the recent Pearson/ Teach First survey on Student Voice 'My Education' concerns me, as someone who cares passionately about the welfare of children. Note, I say welfare: not perceived self interest, but the reasoned needs of children. In an adult system of authority we are justifiably cautious about delegating such affairs to others; one of the safety mechanisms of democracy and the liberal state, is that there are reasonable limits to the extent to which the state can define our interests of us; it is assumed, like JS Mill, that we are the most efficient arbiters of that knowledge.

But not so with children. It is axiomatic of civilised society that, as emergent vessels of autonomy, they require- and deserve- a scaffolded environment in which their will can be directed towards their ultimate benefit. Any such structure requires boundaries and prescription; it's why we don't permit children to choose their own lunch, or schedule their own days, or dress themselves, or vote. The young of Homo Sapiens enjoy a period of unusually extended infantilism, from helplessness to gradual independence. It's so self evident, I can barely type it's defence, but I will: children are subordinate to adults: in authority, in responsibility, in rights, in law, and certainly in the classroom.

What's the alternative? I see a glimpse of it every time I see yet another banal investigation that claims to reveal what children really want, often only days after the last such exposé. The Pearson survey is no different. It claims, like every other survey, to represent the voice and views of children. So what do children really want from their education? I've only been teaching for ten years. I, and all my colleagues, are gripping ourselves with excitement to know.

As usual, there are few surprises. It ranges from:

  • The obvious, eg 'We like interesting lessons'
  • Unimaginative demands for feelgood pseudo-emancipation, eg 'We need to be listened to more'. I call this Russell Brand activism, when one exists in such a cradle of relative comfort and provision that it becomes possible to imagine that one is somehow the victim of oppression.
  • The absurd, eg '38% believed that exams need to have international parity of value in order to help students achieve their life goals.' What? Yes, my students speak of little else in the playground.

 Before I'm accused of child-cannibalism. I love children. I love them so much I insist that they are protected from the wooly well- meant sentimentalism of people who would leave them to their own devices, exposed to the wild elements of adult freedom, against which many of them have no natural defence. To be truthful many adults cannot handle their freedom responsibly. And I love teaching. I love being the midwife to the children's maturation. As they age in the casks of the classroom we slowly take our hands from the pannier and watch as they wobble away, oblivious to their own autonomy. 

But you know what poisons that process? The well meant but moronic insistence that at every turn, children must be consulted before their interests are decided. This is the language of the market, where every participant is a stakeholder and every student is a customer. But they're children, not customers. They're students not an audience. Their opinion interests me, but their interests animate me more than their preferences.

Every manager who instigates a piece of student voice, always does so with public motives of pure altruism; what harm is there asking how children feel? they ask. But there is a broader agenda. For a start, few people ask children their opinion if there's any chance they might say something that they disagree with. Far fewer people ask children their opinion when there is any chance that their personal circumstances could be affected by the outcome. Teachers rarely instigate student voice surveys on themselves because frankly they get enough people telling them how shit they are. Every time I hear a Head Teacher commission a piece of student voice research, I wonder what performance management objective they're trying to achieve.

I'd like to suggest, as I often do, that we should address a neglected group in education: teachers, who are so rarely asked their opinion that they often faint when someone actually does. I'd like teacher voice surveys treated as seriously as student ones. Christ, I'd like someone to ask us what we think about education once in a while. But why would we know what might work in the classroom? We're only the craftsmen, hacking and carving and sanding children out of driftwood. We only deal with it every day. That doesn't make us sole experts, but it does mean we have expertise.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (who conducted the survey) has an agenda. I mean, the fact that their philosophy is 'all students have something to teach us' doesn't for one minute imply that their approach to research, the way they ask questions, what questions they ask and what conclusions they draw is in any way tempered by their agenda. I'm sure their survey was carried out with golden intentions and broad shoulders.

But voices are political. Teachers rarely have one in education. Surveys of student voice aren't neutral. They are profoundly political. I'm interested in what students think because I care about them. But their opinion about what I should do, what I should teach them, and what constitutes an education, is a very small part of my consideration. It's my job to teach them what they often aren't interested in, because that's their legacy, whether they want it or not. I teach them in ways that I think works, not just the way they'd like to learn, because I have a degree in my subject, a professional qualification, and ten years of experience watching how children learn. Every suggestion that they have the right to amend this is equally a suggestion that I don't know what Im doing.

This latest survey is no better for the fact that often it comes to conclusions I agree with, which at least excuses me from claims of cognitive bias. The questions asked are, as is often the case, loaded to the point of a bank robbery. ('To what extent should exams be regurgitation of facts' etc) It's disappointing, because the report is cosponsored by Teach First, which is usually both sober and untroubled by bullshit.

This isn't harmless. Things like this are used to justified decisions that castrate professionals. People often, curiously, criticise The DfE for running teachers down, but in my experience, this is the kind of thing that really runs us down, because it happens in schools every day, no one seems to notice it happening, and it's relentless. And this makes my job harder.