Beauty, warmth, shelter

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Better toilets top the wish-list of children asked to design their ideal school, says Andrea Berkeley, but they include beds for tired teachers, too

THE SCHOOL I'D LIKE. Edited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor. RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99.

This sadly enchanting and thought-provoking paperback, inspired by 15,000 entries to a competition launched by the Guardian in 2001, should be compulsory reading for the clutch of architects currently planning DfES prototypes for schools of the future. Teachers and heads will wryly welcome its refreshing approach to the effective schools debate, contrasting 30 years of education policy-making with children's opinions.

Civilised toilets top the wish lists of The School I'd Like. My adult daughter recently told me she survived secondary schooling without once feeling able to use school toilets. As head of a similar inner-city school, I feel relieved that I read this book after, rather than before, commissioning refurbishment of school toilets.

"Sweet-smelling toilets with doors that lock, But instead we've got: Toilets so disgusting they're like a cellblock, All grungy and mungy, only a couple that lock."

(Sophie, primary pupil in Edinburgh.) Toilets, with their symbolic meaning for children in the learning environment, open this elegantly produced book featuring children's words and artwork, with reflective and challenging commentary from Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor. Given a free rein to imagine their ideal school in words and images, children's visions are grounded in the reality of 15,000 hours of compulsory secondary schooling, revealing rather ordinary human yearnings for comfort, beauty and warmth - yearnings less evident in entries from primary-age children, where emotional and physical well-being is generally better cared for. The curriculum, teaching methods, learning strategies and social inclusion are discussed as well as classrooms, canteens, playgrounds, uniform and technology.

The editors compare entries to a similar competition run by The Observer in 1967, drawing enlightening conclusions on history's dashing of hope from the 1960s, the decade that both liberated us and let us down educationally, only to be followed in the next decade by a teacher shortage equal to the current one. Tracing 25 years of increasing statutory legislation and central control, public accountability, testing and public examination reform, Grosvenor and Burke juxtapose educational history with the strangled voices and yearnings of children, virtually unchanged over the years, making for far more interesting reading than any textbook or government circular, and demonstrating just how slow the time lapse is between education policy reform and actual change.

There have been positive moves. The introduction of citizenship education answers children's desire to blur curriculum boundaries, interact more with "real life" and be listened to as future global citizens. "Education should be working to make us valuable citizens not so-called valuable statistics," as one puts it. The integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream education appeals to altruism, but unconsciously critical comments quoted here highlight how much more thought needs to be given to the emotional well-being of all children and their physical surroundings.

Schools would like to think that they shape society but of course the reverse is true. Children want their learning environment more akin to the interactivity and stimulation found in the new generation of leisure parks and revamped museums and galleries or even on their home computer screens.

"Who wants to be spoon-fed at a snail's pace . . . give us the freedom to ask questions and do us the courtesy of helping us find the answers" (Hero Joy, 14, home-educated in Kent).

Above all, though, children think about teachers. They are clear about good teaching - reliability, trust, fairness, politeness, patience, enthusiasm - and hate favouritism, teacher absence and "respect double standards". None would like technology to replace teachers who should all "be passionate about their subjects and help us to unleash our passions". They empathise, too, some even suggesting teachers should have "beds to lie down and have a rest". Common anxieties (not present in the 1967 Observer feedback) concern endless testing and examining, bullying, vandalism and the lack of home comforts in the school environment. We really need those emotional literacy initiatives now thankfully supporting many children in schools - including mine.

However, it is the parlous state of school buildings and the general neglect of children's physical surroundings that ring out poignantly from their words and images. Children feel that these are symbolic of how the school feels about them, and values them. They touchingly yearn for comfy chairs, soft carpets, water to drink and recreational space - has the need to play in the older child been forgotten? - flowers and greenery, shelter from sun, rain and wind, beauty, comfort and warmth.

Andrea Berkeley is headteacher of Preston Manor high school in the London borough of Brent

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