Don't treat pupils as consumers

20th November 2009 at 00:00

Last week, I heard something that worried me. I was chatting to a teacher whose son is currently at secondary school. That day, he'd been taught by a newly qualified teacher, and the class had been required to evaluate his geography lesson. This was done verbally, the children pointing out the good and bad parts of the lesson, and then via individual "evaluation forms". At the bottom was a space for giving the lesson a mark out of 10.

This seems very odd to me, and just a trifle sinister. Naturally, the children in the evaluation group had widely differing views. One child thought the lesson "brilliant". Another said there wasn't enough "entertainment and stuff". One thought it was "really boring", but qualified that by saying he hated geography anyway.

Useful feedback? I wouldn't have thought so. I love MGs and I've driven them for years. Jeremy Clarkson hates them. But who's to say his view is more valid than mine? Hi-fi is another of my passions, and I recently read a rave review of a new amplifier in an audio magazine. A different magazine, reading between the lines, thought it was awful. Both reviews were written by respected audio journalists, so who was right? A prospective purchaser would surely have been bewildered. So what should he do? Go and listen and make up his own mind, I'd have thought.

And that's what I think the young teacher should have done. After all, he's had training and undertaken several teaching practices. Surely he should know whether the lesson he's prepared is likely to be any good. And if he wasn't sure, why not seek the advice of another teacher whose lessons and teaching style he admired?

But I suspect I know the answers to these questions. These days, we're supposed to think of the child as "the stakeholder". What a truly awful description this is. No longer is a child a small person with a unique, relatively unformed and fascinating view of the world around him. Now he's supposed to be an adult in miniature, with the corresponding reasoning power, knowledge, and experience of an adult.

I accept that we want to get as far away as possible from the days when children were seen and not heard, but let's retain a little common sense. Children look to adults, particularly parents and teachers, to offer a secure, loving environment tempered by wisdom and experience. A parent who uses the child as an equal, friend or confidant usually ends up with a highly insecure youngster.

For the same reason, I have a problem with Pupil Voice. Like many local authorities, mine issues an annual questionnaire for children. The idea is that the authority collates the information and then issues a folder of graphs purporting to show, for example, whether bullying is a major problem across its schools.

It seems a shaky premise to me. However simple and straightforward the compiler tries to make the questions, many children still struggle to interpret them. Even "Are you bullied in school?" can easily be misunderstood; a minor falling out with friends can cause a child to say she's being bullied.

And "Are you happy in school?" seems particularly daft. A child's world is of the moment - full of joy one day and angst the next.

A caring, well-run school will always be listening to children sensitively. And if local authorities need to thrust regular questionnaires at schools I'd say their officers need to visit them more often.

They'd soon find out what's working. And what isn't.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. E-mail:

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