It's a vital matter of opinion

14th March 2008 at 00:00

Promoting pupil voice requires teachers to surrender some control. And not all schools are convinced of its benefits, writes William Stewart

Stephanie Phillips is clearly proud of her school. There is real satisfaction as she leads visitors round, pointing out impressive classroom displays and copies of Fairfields Primary's school charter.

As we progress round the school, she is stopped by staff and pupils, who feel comfortable interrupting an official tour for informal chats.

The atmosphere at Fairfield follows years of painstaking effort from her and all the staff and children to create an environment where everyone feels respected.

"We do a lot of work on rights and on stopping bullying which we see as very, very serious," the nine-year-old explains. Such confidence in one so young is no accident but the product of a deliberate policy of giving all pupils a genuine say in the way their school is run.

Advocates of the pupil voice approach say it is the only way to educate young people in today's society. But critics warn that, if taken to extremes, it could make them impossible to teach.

At Fairfields, it means pupils are quick to criticise teachers who fail to live by the advice they dish out. Sue Davies, a deputy head, says: "We get taken to task regularly by children who see us with biscuits. One Year 6 described the staffroom as a `hotbed of hypocrisy'!"

The Basingstoke school started pupil voice eight years ago. In 2004 it went further, augmenting the school council and pupil suggestion box and deciding to become a rights respecting school.

The status - awarded last year by the children's charity Unicef - means that Fairfields has based its ethos on the principles outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such as giving youngsters "the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions and to have their opinions taken into account".

Becoming rights respecting provides the perfect framework for schools to ensure pupils are "making a positive contribution" - one of the Government's five Every Child Matters goals. Teaching them about their rights and responsibilities helps them to develop self-confidence, engage in decision-making and understand that pupils in other countries may not be so fortunate. It also prevents bullying.

But it does mean a new way of talking to them. "If you see children running down the corridor, you wouldn't say `Stop running!'," says Mrs Davies. "You'd say: `It is your right to be safe, therefore it is your responsibility to move around the school sensibly'."

This makes for long-winded sentences, but it reinforces the rights message and bolsters discipline by linking it to the UN convention.

"It sounds small, it sounds simple," says Phyl Shaw, the headteacher, "but when you start to unpick it, it's massive. For some pupils, it will turn them into young politicians; for others, it will turn them into more confident children, who are able to explain why they live their lives the way they do."

Last year, government-commissioned research found that although 95 per cent of schools in England had introduced school councils, only 12 per cent had used them to give pupils a say in behaviour, teaching and learning.

The report, from the Institute of Education in London, called for more schools to follow that example, but warned that "genuine provision for pupil voice requires some power and influence to be passed to pupils, at which point it becomes unpredictable".

"Our pupils are quick to lose respect for people who don't respect them," says Mrs Shaw. "If that happens, their behaviour just plummets." Not that she sees that as a problem. "I don't think you can run a school without developing pupil voice for the modern child. It must make children miserable. They have so many opportunities to do what they want, and they're so knowledgeable through access to media, we would be foolish if we didn't give them a say.

"It is very dangerous not to listen to them. Ours would rebel."

And the majority of school staff agree with her. Of nearly 2,000 teachers surveyed by The TES, 73 per cent said they thought it a good idea to involve pupils in drawing up teaching and learning policies.

Moreover, 47 per cent - more than half of the teachers who expressed an opinion - backed going even further than Fairfields and allowing pupils to rate their lessons.

That is a step too far for NASUWT. At the teachers' union's annual Easter conference, it is expected to condemn the practice - and that of allowing pupils to interview teachers - on the basis that it is an attack on teachers' professional status.

Chris Keates, its general secretary, says: "There is a negative side coming through, which shifts the balance from staff to pupils. Good teachers, in our view, always engage pupils in their learning.

"The issue is: when you formalise it, it becomes another right and entitlement to pupils, without responsibility, and it starts to disempower the teacher."

But advocates of rights respecting schools argue that they work because pupils are made aware of responsibilities as well as rights.

The concept is growing. Unicef is piloting the idea in more than 200 schools in England. So far, the majority are primaries and Edward Waller, Unicef UK's head of education, admits that the child-centred ethos of juniors and infants may adapt more easily than subject-focused secondaries.

Another big question is whether the radical end of pupil voice will work in tough, urban environments. While the rights respecting school is one idea taking off in the UK, another is the "structure liberates" approach taken by Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Mossbourne Academy. Visit the Hackney secondary and it will be Sir Michael, not a teenager, who shows you around. The pupils will be lined up in silent, single file before entering lessons. This is the school that hit the headlines for banning hugging.

But the highly structured format works for Mossbourne, which topped national key stage 3 value-added tables last month with its first ever set of results.

The approach is also set to spread, with Sir Michael recently appointed education director at Ark Schools, one of the UK's biggest academy sponsors.

While he recognises the benefits of school councils, he has major reservations about going further.

"My belief, particularly in areas such as Hackney, is that structure liberates children by giving them clear boundaries and rules," he says.

As for allowing them to rate teachers' lessons? "That would be a very dangerous road to go down."

- Respect revolution, TES Magazine, pages 8-10.


Schools, it seems, are expected to fix all society's problems. Nowhere is this clearer than in the five "outcomes" they are supposed to ensure for pupils.

The aims were introduced nearly five years ago as part of the Every Child Matters strategy. But their relevance is growing: schools are now judged against them by inspectors, and they underpin the Children's Plan, which covers the next 10 years.

In this special six-part series, The TES examines what schools are doing, what they are missing and whether they can realistically make a difference.

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