Kids want to kick a ball and be heard

6th December 2002 at 00:00
SOMETIMES teachers can be too good. Mastering the skills of persuasive writing led to P7 pupils slipping a paper into my hand after lunchtime. It was a petition protesting at the football arrangements in our very cramped concrete playground. The writer set out his arguments clearly and respectfully, perhaps coming on a little strongly when describing how "we are astonished and shocked that no one is listening to us".

Eighty signatures were attached to this plea to look again at how playground improvements had reduced the opportunities to play football in favour of other games and activities.

The organisation and presentation of the petition was impressive. It even recognised the rights of non-footballing pupils before reminding me that the footballers consider themselves to be in the majority. Most of all I was struck by the children's expectation that they should be able to state their opinion and see some action.

This school generation, brought up with circle time and pupil councils, intends to be heard. More than 400 of them sent their ideas to the recent national debate on education but that number is dwarfed by the 15,000 young people from all over Britain who contributed last year to the Guardian's competition on "the school that I'd like".

The underlying theme of the entries was that adults should listen to children. Children are the consumers of the school system and their personal experiences give them a unique insight into its shortcomings. Like my petitioners, the Guardian writers want a say in their surroundings whether it's leaking roofs, "dirty, smelly" toilets without paper and soap or confining the footballers to a special room so that everyone else can avoid them.

None of the entrants wishes to abolish school but they propose changes in curriculum and teaching to make it more interesting and effective. They regard sitting at desks as a barrier to true learning and would replace it by exploring science, geography, maths and languages in real situations.

History may have to await the invention of a time machine but I would be first to volunteer for one 11-year-old girl's class outing in a rocket for "trips to distant planets when studying the solar system, and the moon when learning about gravity".

There is a grudging acceptance that teachers have some value, even from the 10-year-old who advocates robot teachers before realising that "the most intelligent people in the world were taught by humans so they must be good at their job". Well done, that boy. However, there are many less favourable comments which allow us to see ourselves as others see us. How do you feel about "teachers to use less of their cross voices", or the children who argued that teachers should be retrained to become more flexible, understanding and enthusiastic?

At least the young Guardian writers have a more mature attitude to old age than their predecessors in the original 1967 competition. Teachers, said the 1967 group, should retire when they are 30. Our current pupils are more generous. They are prepared to tolerate us until we are 49.

And what of our petition? I wrote back and suggested that the best place for it was our recently formed pupil council. It will have a sympathetic hearing there since all P6 and P7 representatives - male and female - signed it.

The petitioners don't know that I am a secret supporter. When the playground improvements were begun by an alliance of staff and parents, I was too cowardly to defend the previous arrangements for football. It would be seen as "typically male" and, by definition, politically incorrect. So I kept my mouth shut.

My young protesters would be surprised to learn that the tide is running in their favour and that they have a better chance of being heard than their headteacher who presumed only failure.

Brian Toner is head of St John's primary in Perth.

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