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Let pupils take the lead

Children should be allowed a say in the learning process to lead them into the adult world of community involvement, says Ross Deuchar

Gourock High's plan for pupil-led in-service training, where pupils talk to teachers about how they like to learn, is an approach worthy of consideration by others.

Education for citizenship is, after all, about creating an ethos of consultation and the ability to communicate opinions and participate in decision-making. But it is also about civic engagement.

I recently worked with two primary schools, where the opportunities for pupils to be consulted about issues and work in their local community enhanced levels of personal motivation as well as instilling values related to social and community welfare.

In the first school, the senior management team decided on a new mission statement and formed a community steering committee, which included pupil council members working alongside parents, community centres, community police officers and local youth groups. It listed shared values, including the need to appreciate multiculturalism, to show respect and honesty, to value the local and global environment, as well as valuing yourself and others.

Every two months, the school now channels all of its PSD class topics towards the recognition of one of these values, as well as creating whole-school assemblies which promote them. Thus, the pupils have worked within their own community and been instrumental in creating and developing school policy and practice.

More recent developments in the school have involved other pupil groups, such as the "eco-school committee", in examining health and safety issues and campaigning for speed bumps outside the school to assist traffic-calming.

A second experience of pupil consultation and community involvement came when visiting a primary school on the west coast of Scotland. Set in an area of high crime, drug abuse and unemployment rates, this school had suffered from aggressive behaviour from pupils as well as a continuing problem with vandalism.

The headteacher began consulting the pupil council about forthcoming projects for individual classes, and encouraged them to negotiate aspects of the teaching approaches used. Council members also had access to school finances and were encouraged to help redevelop the grounds. One aspect of this was that pupils chose to join a cross-cultural community arts project, where classes worked with some First Nations woodcarvers from Canada.

Pupils created a Scottish totem pole for the playground, incorporating drawings related to stories of their community's heritage.

Among the many benefits to pupils emerging from this and other similar projects, teachers have noted the increased level of motivation towards learning as well as respect for the local school environment. Indeed, the school has moved from having 12 broken windows a week, combined with aggressive behaviour in the playground, to a greater feeling of pride and tolerance and much less bullying and vandalism.

Both examples illustrate that school policy and practice initiated through a consultative process involving pupil committees and a democratic school ethos may enable children to feel valued and to embrace learning more wholeheartedly. At the same time, bringing both the local and global community into the school classroom enables children to develop social tolerance, increased respect for human rights and an ability to celebrate cultural diversity.

A Curriculum for Excellence states that a prime purpose of education is to make young people aware of the values on which our society is based, enabling them to become committed to issues related to social justice and personal and collective responsibility.

The examples I witnessed provide excellent illustrations of the way in which schools can make this happen, through a combined focus on pupil consultation and community engagement.

If pupils are encouraged to take the lead in making decisions about school policy and practice, and provided with opportunities to reach out and take action in their own local community, they will also develop the confidence and capability to make valuable contributions to society beyond their own locality.

In short, they will become more informed and responsible citizens, with a predisposition towards valuing community diversity and engaging in civic action.

Ross Deuchar is the researchco-ordinator in Strathclyde University's education faculty.

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