The answer's right in front of your eyes

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all? Snow White's mantra drops surreptitiously from the lips of the arrogant in the teaching profession as we measure how we're interacting with our pupils.

Our school's recent HMI inspection included focus - and rightly so - on pupils' perceptions of the school and whether they felt they had a say in making decisions. Everything was covered from subject choices to channels of communication within the school. Pupils from S1 right through to S6 met with the inspectors.

You don't need performance indicators to gauge what kids are feeling about what you do or don't do for them. When I worked in the Health Service patients wanted to feel valued as people and listened to. Superficial touches like addressing people by their first names were often bitterly resented. As for the staff, I recollect how many of them responded sourly to management speak about how they were the organisation's most valued asset.

Similar principles apply in schools for staff and pupils. It's probably enough for young children to feel safe and cared for. When I talked to a young boy aged five about his feelings regarding school he emphasised how kind his teacher was to him. Intriguingly, he was able to describe in minute detail everything his much loved teacher was wearing. All the paperwork imaginable could not capture that obvious warmth.

Secondary school pupils have different expectations. They need democratic channels of communication such as pupil councils. In our school we have a junior and senior pupil council. Every class is represented and the rector attends so that she is made directly aware of their concerns. uch debate is generated and the ideas inform the development of policy in the school. A quick phone around established that most secondaries have some kind of formal forum.

All the schools I spoke to said that the pupils were also encouraged to raise issues within their guidance tutor groups but virtually all of them said that a minute-taking council was essential.

Hear this miserable tale and consider ethos. My friend's son, accompanied by his father, was called to his school to discuss his career path. They were ushered into a room with a table large enough to grace any dining room. At one end sat the rector with the guidance teacher and the visitors were asked to park at the other end. Eventually, the boy's father felt so intimidated by the unbridgeable gap that he was forced to pull rank by casually dropping into the conversation that he was a doctor. Sad, isn't it?

So yes, the unsavoury vignettes parade in front of us like gloomy apparitions from the Scottish Play. School managers can ruminate about positive ethos but, for a true picture, ask the people on the ground.

Before we broke up for Christmas we were invited to join the senior management team for refreshments in the library. The invitation was for after the school day but nearly everyone - teaching and non-teaching staff - attended. Yes, I know . . . cynics will be gagging on their staffroom coffee as they read this but the atmosphere was positive and we valued the words of appreciation for our hard work from our boss.

There are still far too many puffed up and preening pigeons at the top of school hierarchies who would be roasted for breakfast in the real world.

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