Fiona Carnie argues that the way to combat
truancy and create positive learning environments is to respect children's views, give them their own space and involve them in decision-making
THE BBC is installing "mutter machines" because research has found that people work better when there is some background noise. Yet how many teachers demand that pupils work in silence, banning co-operation with friends? This is but one example of the mismatch in expectations of behaviour within school and in the world outside. With current figures indicating that as many as 50,000 children stay away from school each day without permission, it is time to ask whether schools are unrealistic in the demands they make of their pupils. Young people today are different from 50 or 60 years ago but the way schools are organised has hardly moved on. Why aren't these children going to school? What's wrong?
At a time when the political rhetoric is about giving every child a chance, more thought as to what that means is required. At the very least it must mean valuing and respecting each child, helping each one to flourish in his or her own way, recognising that children are all different and that they require different approaches to learning. All schools say that they are committed to these ideals. However, it is very difficult to put them into practice without changing the way they are organised.
Take, for example, the unquestioning obedience demanded of pupils. Children's views are valid and it is more respectful and effective to debate and discuss with them than to tell them what to do. This is the thrust of most parenting courses. Yet how many teachers still subscribe to the "Do this because I tell you" school of discipline? Too many, I suggest. With classes of 30 they think they have no choice.
Should teachers continue to insist on being called Mr X or Miss Y or even Sir or Miss. Children are on first-name terms with most other adults in their lives. Where is the evidence that formality breeds respect? Children should be encouraged to be friends with their teachers.
And what about dress code? Women have been wearing trousers for decades and yet there are still schools prepared to do battle over uniform rather than save their energy for the really important issues. Many other European countries have abolished school uniform.
The list goes on. How many companies move their staff from place to place to work? How many make their employees spend their breaks outside, allowed in only if it is raining? Admittedly it is the size and structure of most schools that necessitate their restrictive practices. But, if these practices are alienating young people, it is time to ask whether they need to be changed.
In forward-thinking businesses there is a move away from hierarchical organisation towards more collaborative ways of working. The emphasis is on building good relationships among staff, creating a positive work environment, and encouraging creative thinking. Companies are doing these things because they have found that staff are more productive as a result.
So what can schools do to create a modern learning environment, one in which children feel happy and secure? They could, for example, give each child a base where most of their learning takes place and make this space a pleasant place to be. There is a school in Derbyshire where each child has a cubicle, identified by their own books on a shelf, with personal photographs, individual work plans and timetables. As adults we know how much we are affected by our environment. So too are children.
Another idea is to reduce the number of teachers that each child meets so that teachers can get to know their pupils better. A comprehensive school in Milton Keynes has introduced team teaching so that teachers are with children for a range of subjects. A number of schools in America recognise the wisdom of this. There are large schools in New York that have split up into a number of smaller units so that each mini school functions like a community.
And, most importantly, all schools should involve children in decisions to do with running their school so they feel they have a stake in the kind of place it is. A primary school in Plymouth involves children in staff appointments, furniture purchases and behaviour policy and has seen standards rise dramatically. A secondary school in Bristol gives students a role in staff assessments. The thinking behind this is that people who are affected by decisions should be able to voice their opinions.
There are plenty of other things schools could be doing to tailor the actual learning experience to suit each child, most of which require the Government to loosen the reins of the national curriculum. But if they start by creating a people-friendly environment it will be a good beginning.
The aim must be to make schools into places young people want to be, to make learning into something children want to do. If it is a positive and humane experience for children and teachers alike vandalism, general disaffection and truancy rates will inevitably decrease. David Blunkett has made available pound;500 million to help reduce truancy. He is offering prizes of pound;10,000 to schools which are successful in this. And he is threatening parents of errant children with fines of up to pound;5,000.
But money isn't the answer. A different kind of solution is needed. The most successful schools are those which encourage dialogue - a real dialogue involving pupils, parents and teachers in creating the kind of learning environment that they want. Only then is there a chance to transform schools into dynamic, thriving, responsive learning communities in which everyone wants to participate.
Fiona Carnie is co-ordinator of Human Scale Education, a charity which encourages large schools to work with children in smaller groups.