Enlisting the kids' army

26th April 2002 at 01:00
Who better to take the stress off overburdened teachers than the pupils themselves - and they can learn a lot in the process, says Joe Hallgarten

After a fortnight of conflicts between unions and the Government, attempts to forge consensus will continue. Agreement exists between government, employers and unions that current workload is excessive. Disputes arise over the degree of excess and the most effective way to cut it.

The debate is over which of teachers' current tasks could be carried out by other adults. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report listed six areas where delegation could occur: exam invigilation; supervision duties; administrative tasks; mounting and displaying pupils' work; specialist ICT support; closer involvement in the teaching and learning process.

The Department for Education and Skills' school remodelling working party is busy writing job descriptions to show how others, from learning mentors to support assistants to premises managers, could assume many of these duties. A more radical step would be for schools to think about which of the tasks could actually be done by pupils themselves.

With the exception of exam invigilation, pupils could play a greater role in all of these areas. Older pupils can, if trained and monitored, supervise younger pupils, and do many administrative tasks, including some marking. Any school could set up a display after-school club, teaching pupils about the basic principles of design and layout. Pupils are frequently used to offer specialist ICT support to peers and less confident teachers. Above all, pupils' learning can be significantly enhanced by involvement in teaching. Pupils are increasingly being asked to take on pastoral roles - mentoring and peer counselling.

As a teacher, it always amazed me, no matter how exciting the lesson I had prepared, and how much the children appeared to be engaged, that virtually every pupil, given the chance, would prefer to opt out of the lesson to undertake some kind of menial, unskilled task, from stuffing envelopes to sharpening pencils.

However, the kids' army concept moves beyond the Wackford Squeers model of learning (where if you can't spell "winders" you'd better clean them), to a position where such work is embedded in learning and pupils participate as active agents. Within five years, every after-school club and summer school could be partly staffed by older pupils, with such involvement accredited. Every school office could contain pupils answering telephones, assisting with accounts, or dealing with parents' queries.

There are some clear objections . The obvious one is the effect on pupil workload. This is why such tasks would need to be incorporated into a school curriculum and a pupil's individual learning plan. The 14-19 Green Paper, added to the citizenship requirements, give clear opportunities for these developments to flower. Where the curriculum proves inflexible, the proposed matriculation diploma, which is supposed to "recognise the achievements that had been made in all forms of study and in wider activity beyond the curriculum" could easily value such activities. Work-related learning could also help break down the vocational and general education barrier.

The other objection relates to teachers' fear of a mums' army. But such delegation can enhance a teacher's professionalism, both as a manager of learners and other adults, and as the key planner and deliverer of lessons to whole classes of pupils. Teachers already find it difficult to manage other adult educators, and need support in learning to let go of certain tasks. This vision should not be compulsory for either schools or pupils.

Indeed, schools wishing to follow this route may well need to apply to the Secretary of State for the new "power to innovate"; there may be legislative barriers to asking pupils to work in this way. As for pupils, there is no reason why they could not be paid in some form. Schools could establish Local Exchange Trading Schemes to reward pupils for their endeavours. The IPPR's SchooLets project is currently trialling these alternative currencies in schools.

Of course, pupil involvement could never entirely solve the workload question. We need to ask questions beyond the shuffling of tasks to others and to question which jobs are unproductive for pupils' learning. One initiative this government should announce immediately is a post-induction year moratorium on the (largely useless) detailed daily lesson plan. But the deployment of pupils could herald a wider cultural shift in schools which transforms relationships between teachers and learners, reducing the most burdensome workload of all: that caused by challenging behaviour.

Joe Hallgarten is an education researcher at IPPR. For information on SchooLets, contact j.hallgarten@ippr.org.uk

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