The Conversation: Pupil voice

14th November 2008 at 00:00
Pupils should play a big part in the running of their school, says Mike Beale, from helping to choose staff to deciding what's on the lunch menu. He explains why to Victoria Neumark

How do you offer young children personal development?

In the past 10 to 12 years, we've moved far from my original "teacher knows best" regime. I used to be "standards bound". Now we involve pupils in all aspects of school life, from helping to choose staff to planning lunch, teaching and learning policy to choice of sports. The more we involve them, the happier the school, the better their behaviour, the higher our achievement. When Ofsted came in May, they rated us outstanding for the personal development of pupils.

How can children participate in such big issues?

We've had a flourishing school council for at least 10 years. It meets for 45 minutes every week, with two representatives elected from each key stage 2 class. They don't just discuss the toilets. With our assistant head, they've drawn up criteria for a good teacher. They've pushed for quiet areas in the playground and greater access to the library. We now have a teaching assistant staying on for an hour a week after school to supervise lending books, computer use and homework. They're very confident, and they have influenced the school a lot.

Where do you go next?

Our latest venture is the regional pupils' parliament, where schools from our cluster will debate issues important to them. The first meeting saw 40 pupils from Years 5-6 (two from each school) discuss healthy lifestyles with a panel of experts. Each school gave three-minute PowerPoint presentations, such as a rap: "Make a pledge to eat more veg!" Or a challenge: "If teachers are to be good role models, should we stop giving sweets as end-of-term presents?"

Isn't that a bit `let's pretend'?

Not at all. Children had prepared with four days' leadership and team- building. They were rock solid and came up with sharp answers, looking at cost and commitment. The parliament voted for the top proposals, which now go to four committees, meeting every half-term until Easter. The local authority and governors have pledged to consider: five fruit and veg a day; healthy tuck shops; free school meals; and free swimming for all - projects that are realistic and sensible. Some authorities are already trialling them.

What about shy or younger pupils?

For four years we've run a suggestion box and an Askit Basket. Children see us act on their ideas. One suggestion was more key stage 1 clubs. Now we run cookery, choir and multi-skills sports for that age group. Some children asked: "Why can't we use the front door?" When I thought about it, there was no reason. It's been a huge success.

What about personal concerns?

All pupils can ask for "bubble time" at any point: three to six minutes face-to-face with anyone they choose. They can put any worry in the "bubble box" or our anti-bullying box. We all talk to each other, and we listen. Children feel safe, as they told Ofsted.

How can it work, given ranges of age and ability and sheer numbers?

Our school is very down to earth. We have 375 children aged 3-11, six at a speech and language unit, 45 per cent of them with special educational needs and 23 per cent on free school meals. Yet our Sats are above average. We meet every child at least every half-term to track targets. Three mornings a week is flexitime: all staff, including senior leaders, meet with small mixed groups to work on targets for half an hour. I'm working with eight struggling readers on sentence construction.

What about behaviour?

Targets include behaviour or attending more clubs, which range from Tai Chi to playing the ukulele and learning Spanish. They are decided by pupils.

We've done wonderful things to help pupils to develop - from anger management to assertiveness workshops. The social and emotional aspects of learning (Seal) project has been completely invigorating: we are a Seal hub school.

Everyone helps to draw up our charter and golden rules, every half-term: the meaning doesn't change but we refresh the commitment. Giving pupils more responsibility makes them more confident, which makes the school much more pleasant.

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