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Hard to keep the customers satisfied

A major survey has found evidence of rising disenchantment among older secondary pupils. Mark Whitehead reports.

"Customer care" is the current catch-phrase among managers of services from railways to supermarkets. Now the results of a survey from Keele University can tell education policy-makers everything they ever wanted to know about their customers - the pupils.

The research provides the widest analysis so far of pupils' attitudes, from how interesting they find lessons to how much television they watch.

Nearly 30,000 children at 200 secondary schools all over the country were given questionnaires last year. The resulting snapshot of opinion among Britain's 11 to 16-year-olds reveals a crisis of confidence in the classrooms and adds weight to Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation that some pupils should be allowed to start on vocational studies before 16.

Most worrying is the pattern that emerges of many youngsters steadily losing interest in their education as they go through secondary school. By the time they reach their crucial GCSE year, many are apparently bored by their work and disenchanted with their teachers, and do not want to stay on.

The survey shows that 8 per cent of 11-year-olds in their first year at secondary school admit to playing truant "sometimes or often". The figure steadily rises until 16 when twice as many pupils admit to truanting. If anything, these figures are an underestimate, as the questionnaires were completed in school time.

In the same way, interest in studying falls off over the five years of secondary schooling. In Year 7, 65 per cent of pupils say they like school. But by the time they reach Year 11, the figure falls to 43 per cent.

Asked if they ever count the minutes until the end of lessons, 45 per cent of 11-year-olds admit they do, while by the age of 15 the figure has risen to 66 per cent.

There are other worrying signs of disaffection gradually eating into pupils as they near their crucial GCSE year. Nearly 90 per cent of 11-year-olds say they consider their school a good one, while four years later, only 66 per cent are similarly proud.

All surveys, of course, should be treated with caution, and there are findings in this one which seem to temper the otherwise bleak picture. Overall, 91 per cent of secondary pupils in schools say they are usually happy at school, and 79 per cent say they enjoy being taught. A total of 80 per cent said they work as hard as they can.

On the other hand, the survey seems to confirm fears of an "anti-education culture" in Britain's schools. Classmates who worked hard were ridiculed, said 82 per cent of pupils. Negative attitudes to school are particularly prevalent among boys, as chief inspector Chris Woodhead recently warned. In almost every category, boys emerge as less motivated and more prone to bad behaviour.

Classroom disruption and bullying emerge as serious problems. Ninety-two per cent of pupils in Year 11 complain of their work being disrupted, while 22 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds suffer from bullying. Interestingly, this is one of the few figures which declines as pupils get older, with only 16 per cent in Year 11 complaining of being bullied.

The report is not encouraging for teachers. Asked if teachers were respected, 57 per cent of the youngest pupils said they were. But only 37 per cent of GCSE-year pupils, agreed. And when it comes to staying on after 16, the figures again point to a substantial minority who are unconvinced about the benefits of education. Nearly four-fifths in Year 11 thought it was worthwhile to stay on - meaning that one in five did not see the point.

Many parents, judging by this survey, take little interest in their children's education. One in five pupils said they had no help from their parents, and only 27 per cent said their parents checked their homework at least once a week.

That old bugbear, television, may also be partly to blame. One in four pupils admitted to watching more than four hours of TV a day, while a further 47 per cent said they watched for two to four hours.

And it may be that some pupils are too tired to concentrate in class once they have finished their spare-time job and gone out to enjoy themselves. Nearly one in five pupils said they worked at least five hours a week - the figure is one in three in Year 11 - while more than half said they went out three times a week or more.

A separate survey of more than 8,000 parents shows most are surprisingly happy with their children's schools. Two-thirds thought discipline was "about right" and 71 per cent said their children were given the right amount of homework. More than 80 per cent thought their children's school buildings were either "good with room for improvement" or reached a very high standard. Almost 90 per cent said their child was happy.

An encouraging finding for the Government was that an overall 42 per cent of parents thought national curriculum tests helped their children's learning - around double the figure found by earlier research when the tests began.

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