Children are the experts

20th February 2004 at 00:00
Children, Power and Schooling: how childhood is structured in the primary school. By Dympna Devine. Trentham Books pound;17.99

It has always been a mystery to me why we allow our schools to be so assiduously and comprehensively monitored, evaluated and inspected by outsiders, when we have instant and daily access to the perceptions of 30 (or more) resident experts on curriculum, learning and pedagogy: the children we teach. Their insider expertise is largely ignored, with honourable exceptions, as is demonstrated by the growing literature on pupil voice. Children, Power and Schooling is a welcome addition to this body of knowledge.

Dympna Devine spent one school year researching in three primary schools in the Republic of Ireland. Her expert witnesses were 133 seven and 11-year-olds. Her aim in this book was to focus on "the lifeworld of children through the lens of child culture"; the result is a tribute to the children's candour, percipience and sense of social justice. Their "lifeworld" is indeed vividly conveyed, but it is far from being the one that Devine argues they deserve.

One of the strengths of the book is the author's determination to keep her researcher's eye on the big issues, in particular the exercise of power, the structuring of childhood and the agency of children. On all these topics the children have much to tell us, so much so that the chapter on curriculum, which lists their preferred subjects (art and PE by a distance) and least favoured (Irish and sums), is much less compelling than the chapters that explore their views on pedagogy, social relationships and their experience of evaluation.

The chapter on pedagogy is especially rich, opening our eyes to the ways in which teachers control children's time and space, and how children perceive this aspect of the exercise of power. One seven-year-old girl offers an extended simile to describe her experience: "Sometimes it feels a bit like being a robot - as if the teacher is in the middle of the room with a great big remote control and you have to do everything she says." Interestingly, in only one of the classrooms observed, at "Parkway", is the authority of the teacher challenged or resisted by the pupils; in the others, the keynotes are acquiescence and obedience, with only limited attempts at negotiation or resistance. The children's protest at Parkway, when they refuse to leave the hall because the teacher has not used all the PE time available, is a rare moment of class solidarity against a common enemy.

Most of the children, most of the time, respect, appreciate and even admire their teachers, though not necessarily everything those teachers do.

In a fascinating discussion of school rules, and the ways in which children experience them, there is more than a murmur of dissent. Some children are on message, perhaps disproportionately so: "There are rules in school 'cos children are bad" (seven-year-old girl). But others see things their own way: "Rules do make school safer, but they make it too safeI they shouldn't really stop you from running" (11-year-old boy). The issue of running is significant: in all three schools running is not allowed in the playground, though the rule seems to be largely ignored by the children. As one wise 11-year-old comments: "Everybody has to break the running rule at least one timeI it's the way children areI we play chase and we runI everybody has to break a rule in their life."

After six chapters presenting the children's testimony, Devine turns to theorising: drawing on Michel Foucault and Anthony Giddens, she explores the tension between structure and agency. It is a convincing account, but less arresting than what has gone before. Of greater interest is the concluding chapter, which considers how power might be redistributed in the interests of creating a more democratic and harmonious society in schools, with children as citizens rather than subjects. Devine usefully reminds us that teachers too are subject to constraint, and are very well aware of their authority as "sacrosanct, something to be carefully guarded and at risk from potentially unruly children".

It is regrettable that Devine has been ill-served by her editors, who have a casual attitude to proof-reading and a wayward approach to apostrophes, even managing to insert one in the word "itself" - surely a first. But these are minor flaws in a book that will appeal to every educator interested in the contemporary primary school. In terms of its key themes, much of it has been said before, and all of it will probably need to be said again before we reach that distant goal of equitable, democratic education, predicated on participation, rather than obedience.

Mary Jane Drummond is a lecturer in primary education at Cambridge University

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