Enshrining pupil voice in law will not meet the ideal

28th November 2008 at 00:00

A fortnight ago Baroness Morgan, the junior schools minister, announced that schools should consult pupils on the curriculum, behaviour, uniform, food, health and safety, equalities and sustainability, and not - as she provocatively put it - "simply on what colour to paint the walls."

The new directive will require schools to consult pupils on almost everything except the appointment of staff and the formulation of the budget.

It would be easy to view this as the kind of crowd-pleasing nonsense that might emanate from the fresh-faced and overeager ranks of a think tank somewhere deep in the Westminster bubble. But in fact it was an unforeseen House of Lords ambush by the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Walmsley. During the eleventh hour of the third reading of the Education and Skills Bill, she introduced this amendment on pupil consultation, whipped up a bit of cross-party support, and produced an idea that is about to become enshrined in law.

It is not that any of us has anything against pupil voice, just as it is hard to argue against fitness or fresh air: both are good things which we like very much. We just don't need laws telling us when to exercise or how to breathe. Most of us, after all, have school councils that have moved beyond the traditional areas of regularly demanding the abandonment of school uniform and complaining about the toilets.

Our own school council - under the authoritative and often tyrannical direction of our elected head girl and head boy - have sub-committees focused on sports and the arts, teaching and learning, healthy eating, charity, sustainability, and the community. They regularly help us in appointing staff, give feedback on teaching and learning, and provide views on a range of issues. They are impressive and often inspiring. But that is not quite what is being proposed.

My problem with the directive is that it feels like another misguided step towards reducing pupils to consumers - something which may appear superficially attractive but which can leave them feeling patronised and unchallenged.

In Barry Schwartz's thought-provoking book The Paradox of Choice, the psychology professor reminds us that increased consumer choice does not always make us more satisfied. Indeed, it often results in the opposite. We flip restlessly through the endless channels of our digital televisions lamenting the fact that there is nothing to watch. We pick one of the labyrinthine variations of coffee at our favourite haunt wondering whether we made the right choice. We spend an hour narrowing down our multifaceted selection of jeans in a clothes shop, then shuffle out questioning whether we picked quite the right ones.

Whatever the barrage of advertising tells us, choice isn't always good. It can feed anxiety, as it does for parents fed a myth of choice over schools. Sometimes someone taking decisions on our behalf is reassuring, comforting, especially in areas where we have little experience. And that is something we should keep in mind in schools.

For all the emphasis on personalised learning (which, as last week's TES reminded us, remains an elusive concept), it doesn't mean that consumer-based choice needs to underpin everything. Take the array of 17 new diploma lines of learning, each offered at three different levels, with the potential for students to study different elements at different institutions. This may seem like a cosmetically attractive way of building pupil engagement and motivation. Yet many of us stumbled across our particular interests and passions not because of a choice we made but because of a choice made for us.

I didn't know I was any good at English, or that I wanted to become an English teacher, until Roy Samson began to teach me in the sixth form. Suddenly I was studying texts I would never have encountered if left to my own lowbrow tastes, using formal language I had never heard of, and discovering a source of academic study that left me astonished and eager to learn more.

That is what great teachers do: they nudge us, provoke us, and lead us into unchartered waters of learning and experience.

Similarly, the best use of our school council's time may not be telling us what they think of our health and safety or equal opportunities policies. It might be that we should be challenging them to come up with new ideas for helping the community, or new approaches to teaching and learning. Remember that wise adage from Professor John West-Burnham: "Schools are places where the children go to watch the adults working". Maybe it's time for us to do less and for them to do more.

None of this is enshrined in the spirit of the pupil voice regulation, which reduces the pupil to the familiar role of passive consumer. The bigger and more important challenge - for our schools and the country - is not to reinforce their identity as advertising fodder, but rather to help them develop into active, responsible citizens. Which is precisely what most of us in our schools are doing day by day, without the latest shiny idea lobbed into our midst by their Lordships.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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