Fires in the Bathroom

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Fires in the Bathroom: advice for teachers from high school students By Kathleen Cushman The New Press pound;9.99

This book starts with a fairly startling observation: "It's a safe bet that in random high schools all over the United States, some kid has just set the bathroom wastebasket on fire. And deep down, all of us know why."

I hadn't realised this activity was quite such a feature of the hidden curriculum, but the author's explanation will strike a chord with many. She argues that for perhaps most teenagers, school life is characterised by feelings of anonymity and captivity. As a result, "high school becomes something done to kids, not by kids".

It's hard to dispute this, and Britain has an increasingly impressive record of listening to what the National College for School Leadership calls "the pupil voice". Experts such as Geoff Southworth, John MacBeath and Joan Sallis have demonstrated the impact schools can make when they involve pupils in school improvement. The new Ofsted framework asks about pupils' attitudes to learning and culminates in a letter from the lead inspector to the pupils, giving them feedback on "their" school. The pupil voice is becoming bedded in as a prerequisite to providing a good education.

Much in Kathleen Cushman's transcript of pupil voices from New York, Providence and San Francisco is therefore familiar, except perhaps the names. I haven't taught many Montoyas and Mahoganys, though I did once have to tell off a Porsche and I think my wife teaches a Mercedes. Their comments are grouped thematically under headings such as "Respect, liking, trust and fairness", "Motivation and boredom" and "Teaching difficult academic material". As always, the pupils are spot on in their diagnosis of what good - and bad - teachers do. They call for respect, but not patronising friendliness; tolerance and patience; plus the one weaker teachers often let go first - consistency. As Lauraliz says: "I give up on my test or homework because I don't understand it, and when the teacher comes around to collect it, I put it in my book bag and they don't notice."

Pupils across the pond, as here, request clear boundaries and high expectations, with a smattering of humour and humility.

So far, so familiar. If this was all the book offered, I suspect many schools would be better off putting the pound;9.99 towards the cost of photocopying their own pupil questionnaires. What is more helpful, however, is that each section concludes with a list of the kinds of questions we might ask pupils, plus a handy summary of key points. The questionnaires are aimed mostly at pupils, but some of the most incisive are those that staff might complete, reflecting on questions such as, "What do I expect of pupils, and how do I show it?"

It's an important reminder, which perhaps needs stating more strongly, that you can get together the results of as many questionnaires and focus groups as you like, but there is then a compulsion to act upon what pupils say, even when it's uncomfortable. Don't dismantle those smoke alarms just yet.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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