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To Sir with Love, an inspiration

Give young people 'spaces' to express themselves, and their achievement, confidence and relations will improve

If schools want to increase pupil participation they should look for inspiration to the school featured in the book and film To Sir With Love, according to an academic.

The book was based on St George-in-the-East School in London, which held a whole-school meeting every half-term, when each class made a presentation about its learning and three teachers were nominated to take questions from pupils.

"It was not about pupils getting at staff," Michael Fielding, professor of education at the Institute of Education in London, told a pupil participation conference in Edinburgh last week. "I was excited by that model because it was about a community valuing its work and asking questions about what it does."

Further inspiration could be found in the way ERBraithwaite, the author, went about teaching his class, said Professor Fielding. Braithwaite, a Guyanese-born novelist, writer, teacher and diplomat, realised he had to engage with his pupils, so he invited them to talk about something they felt good about. One boy, considered to be a "bit dim", turned the class's perception of him on its head with a presentation on fishing, which had them enthralled. "After that, he was viewed differently."

It was crucial to give young people "spaces" to express themselves, Professor Fielding concluded.

Recent research has found that the biggest barrier to pupil participation in Scotland was time. However, those pushing for the right of young people to have their voices heard have branded lack of time an excuse. "It's about how you teach," said Cathy Begley, an education for citizenship development officer with Learning and Teaching Scotland.

The research, which consisted largely of an online survey of primary and secondary schools, was carried out by the Scottish Council for Research in Education at Glasgow University. The vast majority of the 622 schools (91 per cent) which responded had developed plans to encourage pupil participation, ranging from buddying and mentoring to pupil councils.

The benefits of increasing pupil participation included increased pupil achievement and confidence (90 per cent), better school ethos (92 per cent) and better classroom learning relationships (83 per cent).

However, the research found that primary children were given a greater range of opportunities than those in secondary. Primaries were likely to associate improvements in pupil achievement and confidence with pupil participation and more likely to agree that pupil participation contributed to better classroom learning relationships and ethos across the school.

Secondaries did not associate pupil participation with an improvement in discipline and behaviour problems. The researchers said: "Through the course of this research, it was evident that while participation requires more, it also inspires more."

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