Listen and learn

7th February 2014 at 00:00

More than 160 students, teachers and education professionals attended a recent Scottish conference on "student voice". Insightful young people outlined the relationships, teaching styles, technology and aspirational culture they hoped for. Teachers and professionals contributed but also listened and learned.

Listening to student voice is now relatively uncontroversial and has been for some time. Indeed, the 2007 How Good Is Our School? report - endorsed by the former Scottish Inspectorate of Education - insisted on consultation with learners on "the quality of education and the way our school is run".

But there is not a consensus. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, recently rejected the concept "as patronising and an abdication of adult responsibility". She particularly objects to learner involvement in staff selection, which she believes undermines teacher authority.

Her counterblast to the new orthodoxy almost certainly echoes much staffroom opinion. Many still consider that authority should automatically be given to anyone in the position of teacher. That approach demands some consideration.

I have much experience teaching adults, as well as young people. Almost no one who teaches older students doubts the validity of asking them what aspects of a course worked well or less well. Such teachers not only ask but also act on the replies. Similarly, it has long been accepted that the appointment of senior school staff will involve parents. Why not young people?

Over the later years of my career as a school leader, I always engaged a group of students who met and questioned candidates for senior posts. Well briefed on appropriate questions, they had a senior teacher present during their meetings. They then advised the formal interview panel, not of their preferred candidate but of their views of each candidate's strengths. The result was almost always the same: perceptions that were amazingly close to those of the panel.

The biggest red herring is that young learners, if given the choice, will reject traditional curricular content in favour of a facile, contemporary range of learning experiences. They will choose The Simpsons over The Canterbury Tales, Eminem over John Donne.

This is simply wrong. Any skilled teacher will be able to convince young people of the good reasons for studying what they study. Young people appreciate that teachers have an invaluable corpus of knowledge and experience.

The authority that good teachers enjoy is earned: by their demeanour, the ethos they create, their concern for their students and, above all, by their professional skills. Learners can identify skilled, committed teachers and unerringly sense the bullshitters. The authority of the skilled teacher is never threatened by listening to learners.

Alex Wood is a former headteacher who works at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration.

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