How primary circle loses its charm

Senior pupils in some Scottish primaries feel they are taking decisions that make a difference to their school, suggesting ways to improve the playground or challenge the latest orthodoxy on school dinners.

But within a matter of months of their transition to secondary they are relegated to decision-making bystanders, a study by Ross Deuchar at Strathclyde University reveals.

Dr Deuchar followed a group of 150 pupils from five primaries in five local authorities as they made their way from primary to secondary to study how they took part in decision-making. But the contrast between the different cultures is thrown into sharp focus by the S1 pupils' comments on their councils.

"In primary," said one pupil, "we used to have an ideas box and we used to have assembly every week and we got told about the pupil council... but here we don't get told."

Another said: "They don't tell us anything", while a third added: "Not much has happened so far."

Dr Deuchar concludes there is far more consultation and decision-making in P7 than in S1 and more discussion of controversial contemporary issues.

There is evidence in primary of "a charmed circle" of pupils who are active in decision-making, although most pupils are positive about their potential to take part.

"This enthusiasm, commitment and engagement seemed to transcend all socio-economic backgrounds studied," says Dr Deuchar.

In primary, teachers are more open. One who was mentioned in the study said: "I firmly believe that the children should be participating, taking responsibility... giving their own ideas." Another added: "I like to show them that nothing is compulsory for children."

In secondary it is altogether different, as there are obstacles created by authoritarianism, school hierarchies and the attainment agenda, Dr Deuchar points out.

Primaries often see pupil involvement in terms of enterprise and creativity but in secondary one teacher said: "As support teacher for five years in this school I have rarely, if ever, experienced any enterprising lessons.

Pupils work in silence, on their own."

From his small-scale study in the primaries which were selected for their good practice, Dr Deuchar says: "Far from reflecting a sense of youth alienation, lack of social values and disengagement with the political processes, the pupils involved in this case study seemed genuinely enthusiastic about their potential for participation and for making a contribution to social and community improvement."

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