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Let the children speak

Pupils enjoy having their voices heard and you can use that force for good, says Frank Hartle

Voter apathy and low turn-out on polling day is a growing headache. The electorate is more cynical about the relevance of its opinion. Choosing a government by ballot is a hard-won cornerstone of democracy but it is worth remembering that voting is just one aspect of a developed sense of citizenship. Citizenship grows out of a sense of responsibility and belonging. It is the feeling that "the things I do or don't do make a difference". Citizenship, loyalty and service are first learned in the nitty-gritty of our personal lives. A sense of national citizenship grows from the experience of having a say and being accountable in a family, neighbourhood or school.

Democracy is one of the most important ways individuals make a difference to their society. Democracy at school can be the first step towards a feeling of wider citizenship and can also benefit the school's development. At the Hay Group where I work, we place great importance on getting feedback from pupils. One told us: "It is important to be able to help teachers see how we feel, so they can make things work better. I liked thinking, too, about how I felt and what the class was really like. Thinking about it, I realised that difficult work was actually a good thing. Sometimes."

But a sense of responsibility and a capacity to make a difference only develop if views actually count for something. There must be a reaction to feedback. Yet this suggests the dangers lying in wait for democracy at school. Gathering opinions that cannot be used or understood, or which are irrelevant, makes it difficult for teachers to react constructively. If this is the case, it would be better not to ask at all. If, for example, pupils say they want games to fill their entire timetable, their suggestions are likely to be dismissed. Unfortunately, this sends back the message that "even though we asked you, your views don't make a difference".

Asking the right questions in the right manner is vital. Questions have to be structured to provoke answers that teachers want to react to (which is not necessarily the same as the answers thatteachers want to hear). Acting on pupils' views about what helps or hinders them learn gives pupils the experience of an immediate and noticeable difference, and provides a valuable lesson in citizenship.

Our experience of working in partnership with schools to improve performance has shown us that it is helpful to test pupils' perceptions on nine key measures of their learning environment.

They include clarity (pupils' understanding of why they are studying a subject or topic), interest (how pupils are encouraged to engage with the subject being taught), participation (how far pupils are involved with the organisation of their classes) and standards (pupils' awareness of the achievements expected of them).

Teachers who have asked children about these measures have experienced powerful results. For example, at one school staff saw that children were delighted to realise that their opinions counted. While a small sample of views would have been sufficient for the exercise, popular demand had the whole class involved. Quite apart from any possible educational improvements generated by their feedback, simply participating in this exercise gave them an immediate first lesson in citizenship.

This experiment also raised the issue of anonymity. Staff at the school were worried about children's desire to please (or, worse, to displease). When pupils believed that the teacher would see their individual responses they tended to be kind. Where anonymity was assured, their responses were thoughtful, constructive and honest. Yet they still cared about the impact they made with their views.

The answer has to be that the feedback is for the teacher alone - for them to make decisions about how they teach. The need for responsibility and self-direction applies at all levels of the school.

The children in schools we work with have delivered their own powerful lesson: when gathered carefully pupils' views can be more dependable than those of the adult electorate.

Frank Hartle is director of education services for the Hay Group, and for the last three years has been project director for research behind the Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers

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