How about 'teacher voice' for a change?

11th April 2008 at 01:00

As a child at primary school, I walked home for lunch. During that hour, my mother sat and talked to me. We'd read books together - particularly, I recall, the Arthur Mee children's encyclopedias - and she taught me the fascination of acquiring knowledge. I remember her as supportive, kind and loving. Except when I'd done something naughty, damaged property or hurt somebody, and then she could be severe. On a handful of occasions, she smacked me.

I was reminded of her influence when I read that a poll of 2,000 teachers had shown that half felt "pupil voice" - the fashionable term meaning giving children, however young, the chance to voice their opinions about everything - was hugely important. I'm afraid I side with the other half.

Let me qualify that. I want my school to be an exciting and interesting place, where children feel safe, valued and happy. I want to enjoy conversation with children, and I do because many come to see me throughout the day, to show work or chat to me, and I have a teaching timetable. I also believe that children have an entitlement to the highest quality of teaching.

But I don't want to pretend that children are miniature adults, with similar reasoning skills. They aren't, and nor should they try to be. They inhabit a wide-eyed world of their own, one they don't fully understand, and they want rules, consistency and boundaries (even though most will test them occasionally). They want to feel that the adults around them are knowledgeable, wise and worth taking notice of. They don't want a questionnaire thrust in their face every five minutes.

Pupil voice started in an insignificant way. I began to notice it in the written reports that accompanied children transferring to my school. On these, there was a space for "the child's view" and what was written ranged from the merely bland "Andrew thinks science is interesting" to the paper-wasting "Darren says he enjoys McDonald's" and "Charlie likes staying at his Nan's". To date, none of the comments have been the slightest bit of use to us.

What worries me more is the insistence from social services or educational psychologists that the child's view should be included on referral forms. One of my Year 2 infants has suffered a horrendous family situation this year. Yet her thoughts are still demanded. In reality this tiny, distressed child aches for somebody to make a few sensible decisions for her.

And there's a sinister dimension, too. Ofsted, it seems, is keen to train older children to monitor and assess their teachers. I've no idea why we should assume that the inspection body knows much about the coalface, but teachers seem increasingly compliant with this disturbing notion and constantly question their own actions.

I even know a school where classrooms have seats at the back for parents, who can come in when they like, make notes on the teaching and openly criticise it afterwards. Everybody seems entitled to a "voice" apart from the teachers. Who are the professionals supposed to be, I wonder?

My school is in an exceptionally difficult area, yet supply teachers always tell us how pleasant and well behaved our children are and how refreshingly different our school is from many they encounter. They tell us of schools where five-year-olds swear at adults, where classrooms are chaotic, where teacher turnover is so great that some children have six teachers in a year - even a school where children are escorted home by mounted police. End products of a bit too much pupil voice, perhaps? Somehow, I think my mother got the balance about right.

- mikejkent@aol.com

Mike Kent, Headteacher of Comber Grove Primary School in Camberwell, south London.

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