Raymond Ross looks at how the Scottish Executive has sought pupils' views on the Education Bill and asks how genuine the consultation is
Talking and listening tochild "consumers" ofeducation is at theheart of the ScottishExecutive's consultation on the Education Bill to be presented to the Parliament this month. So say the minister for children and education, Sam Galbraith, and his deputy, Peter Peacock.
A range of measures have been taken to ensure that Scottish pupils can make "a full and meaningful contribution". Twenty-eight thousand copies of the consultation document Improving Our Schools have been sent out. Five have gone to each Scottish school, with one earmarked for the attention of the pupil council. Others have gone to local youth organisations. And both Sam Galbraith and Peter Peacock have held a series of meetings with stakeholder groups, including senior pupils.
An interactive website pupils can access through the National Grid for Learning was set up on June 29. There has been little take up on this. It has been mooted that perhaps this is "because it is a new format".
Save the Children Scotland carried out the main consultation on behalf of the Executive. It held 12 forum groups across the country, with 90 pupils in all. Four groups were in primaries, four in mainstream secondaries, and four non-formal groups included an education centre for young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties and one for young people with severe physical disabilities. The findings were submitted to the Scottish Executive on October 30 and will be published as part of the Executive's report on the consultation process.
But how genuine is the consultation process? Is it just a public relations exercise?
Opposition MSP Fiona McLeod (SNP) welcomes Save the Children's involvement as "a plus", because of its experience and professionalism. But she argues that "90 pupils out of the entire school population is not a great amount". She says the "supposed" four-month consultation period (since July) "is really only a month, given that the Save the Children consultation was not announced until September 29. In the education committee I've been pushing that we as a committee should be setting up a template for going out to seek young people's views on all matters which concern them. In fact, every piece of legislation should be scrutinised for its effect on children.
"The Save the Children focus groups came late. But it is at least the beginning. If the Executive is taking young people's views seriously, without having to be pushed and prodded all the time, then I'm pleased. If the Scottish Parliament is about the future, then it's about our young people."
An Executive spokesman responded: "Judge us by the outcomes and what we do with the material we receive. If we do nothing, then the whole process would be devalued. It is important that the Executive responds positively to this. Outwith the Save the Children focus groups, we have had some 60 to 70 meetings with various stakeholders from local authorities and voluntary groups to headteachers and unions. How worthwhile the four-month consultation period has been will depend on whether or not it has an impact on the Bill. Ministers have entered the process with an open mind."
Deputy minister Peacock says that at the five public meetings he attended young people did not speak up in the presence of parents, teachers and other adults. But they were "articulate and incisive" in the informal half-hour talks he held with them after each meeting.
"As consumers they have better insights than others, though they may be more interested in 'their' education than in the Bill as such," Mr Peacock says. "What struck me was that their analysis often mirrored that of the professionals. The main issues they raised with me included the transition from primary to secondary, how disruptive pupils could impact on the whole class, how the summer break was so long that they had to go back and re-learn what they had forgotten, and how the step up from Standard to Higher grade was too big. That was a bit of a shock to some."
The depute minister says this whole "first time" Scottish Government consultation exercise "is part of a wider consultation process. Once we have evaluated it we will try to build it into any future process."
Responding to criticisms of hurried consultation on the bill, he says: "In the timescale we've had since the opening of the Parliament, it's difficult to see how it could have been longer."
Save the Children Scotland's assistant director, Sue Fisher, argues:
"Although it is not definitive, we have managed to access the kind of diversity you'd get in Scottish schools today. And at the express wish of the Scottish Executive we have also targeted those pupils whose school experience has not been successful, including those who have been excluded.
"It's more about looking at the common themes which have arisen than relating these groups to the general public. And because the groups were so diverse, we cannot draw out simple generalisations. Everything has to be viewed in context."
The focus groups were chosen to ensure young people from ethnic minorities were heard. There were two single sex groups, as young people often speak out more in front of their own sex, and one from a denominational school. The schools ranged from Fraserburgh and Kingussie in the north to Hawick in the Borders and included schools from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Midlothian, Fife and Clackmannanshire.
Alison Ritchie is the education development officer who led the focus groups for Save the Children. She says that primary pupils were more concerned with improvements to their physical environments, particularly to play areas. They wanted more grass and greenery.
Secondary pupils tended to raise issues about pupil-teacher relationships. They wanted more opportunity to get to know teachers outside the class - hillwalking, for instance.
They were concerned that guidance teachers who were also subject teachers couldn't devote enough time to guidance. Primary pupils were more likely than secondary to feel they were listened to. And where there was an effective pupil council all pupils felt they were listened to more.
All the pupils believed listening to young people would make schools better. And both primaries and secondaries wanted more classroom discussion. The pupils raised teaching methods a lot in the forums. They had strong preferences for teachers having the time to talk to particular groups and answer individual questions, and secondary pupils wanted more exam back-up.
Pupils, particularly in secondary, appreciated teachers who could have fun, controlling the mood of the class so they could enjoy themselves while learning.
Behaviour issues came up a lot too. Primary pupils liked positive behaviour policies. All thought class discipline was important and more resources should go into it. For example, inexperienced teachers ought to get extra training or have another teacher in class with them.
Everybody said they wished they could learn more through talking. And they thought subjects should be talked through thoroughly before writing or filling in worksheets began.
There was a preference for practical activities, making theory real. Learning by doing seemed attractive enough to secondary pupils, but primary pupils talked about it a lot more.
And everybody believed pupils' views should be heard.
Save the Children's focus groups are now finished. But an Executive spokesman says pupil consultation is not over: "We will continue to consult in parallel with taking the bill through Parliament. And we will see anyone who wants to see us, if we can fit it into the diary. The Bill is 10 per cent of the work. The other 90 per cent will be putting the Bill into effect with the local authorities."
LOCAL AUTHORITIES' RESPONSE
Local authorities have also been encouraged to consult with pupils. Glasgow education director Ken Corsar says 12 pupils met with Sam Galbraith and their reaction has been fed into Glasgow's response to the Bill. "But it would be difficult to involve pupil councils who have not been given all the background," he says. "These 12 come from strong modern studies departments."
In Stirling the 16 pupil representatives on the council's student forum have brought forward views from individual pupil councils. Education development officer Marion Wallace Gee says these have been forwarded to the Executive as part of the local authority's response.
"A concern raised by the student forum," Ms Gee says, "was that there is so much paper going around in education at the moment, that this particular consultation process would not be acted upon. Their fear was that pupils' comments would remain in drawers and not result in action. They welcomed the idea, however, of MSPs becoming more active in schools, especially conducting surgeries with pupils."
Fife's head of education, Alex McKay, says headteachers have encouraged all pupil councils to respond, but only five sent in written responses. "I think the relative paucity of response is to do with the timing," he says. "I would like to have met with pupil councils but the time was too short because of the October break. One interesting response from a primary school was the desire for a counsellor who was not a member of the teaching staff, and whom pupils could talk to confidentially about matters whether they related directly to school or not." At three meetings Fife consulted some 60 or 70 people from school boards and parent teacher associations, though no pupils were present.
"I don't question the good faith of the Scottish Executive" says Mr McKay. But if they want to put the improvement framework proposed in the Bill into statute, then I think we should also make consultation methods with pupils statutory. As it stands, the Bill is giving a mixed message."
TWO PUPIL FOCUS GROUPS
TES Scotland visited two of the schools that took part in the Save the Children forum groups to gauge the pupils' responses.
The P6 pupils at Guardbridge PS in Fife and S2 pupils at Notre Dame High School for Girls in Glasgow talked a lot about improvements to their physical environment, particularly bigger playgrounds. This was more marked among the primary pupils, who also wanted a grass playing area. Bright freshly painted classrooms were high on the
agenda. One Guardbridge pupil wanted "multi-coloured walls".
But given the choice, secondary pupils thought relations with teachers much more important.
Both groups felt their opinions were listened to because of their pupil councils. And they could give evidence of council requests being put into effect which made them feel more valued.
They all expressed confidence in the education they were receiving and thought discipline important. Primary pupils were especially eager to please teachers.
They thought more money could be spent on equipment. The primary tended to want more sports equipment and the secondary more computers, with one suggestion that "we should have mini-laptops with discs for each subject."
Both groups thought school uniform important because it was "smart". Notre Dame pupils thought "you get respected in the street", "nobody's competing" and "all schools should have one". (Over half of Notre Dame's pupils receive clothing grants.) Secondary pupils thought school holidays should be re arranged so that the summer break was shorter because "you forget stuff over the summer and have to learn it all again".
While both groups were positive about their classroom experience, secondary pupils wanted more discussion with teachers ("you are working when you talk"). They specially liked teachers who could create a "relaxed atmosphere" to work in, and thought that 55 minute periods were not long enough.
In general, the Notre Dame group thought both government and society undervalued education. Among their comments were:
"The Government doesn't pay much attention or pay enough
"Politicians are more interested in wars than schools. It's like the Third World and the debt thing. If they really cared they'd do something."
"If people really cared they'd consider teachers as important as MPs."
"Teachers are dead important for your future. It's not fair that footballers get so much and teachers don't get paid enough."