Listening to children

9th February 1996 at 00:00
ADVOCACY, SELF-ADVOCACY AND SPECIAL NEEDS Edited by Philip Garner and Sarah Sandow David Fulton #163;12.99.

This excellent book is nominally about advocacy and self-advocacy, though the reader will find much more besides. At its heart is a concern for children's rights and - to realise these - the need for progressive, democratic, liberal education. And if schools are to be truly democratic, they have to give children their voice.

The book starts with a powerful chapter on the importance and the significance of the child's voice. It quotes liberally from the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights to demonstrate how often children's rights are flouted in this country - particularly if those children are designated "special". If your child has a statement, for instance, you don't have a right to choose the kind of education that shall be given, contrary to the Declaration.

The importance of schools' councils figures throughout the book as a means of achieving self-advocacy for children at school, though there are warnings about merely paying lip-service to the council. There has to be a way of articulating the council's deliberations in forums which make decisions and effect action. Too often the council exists only as a notional recognition of a demand for democracy. But the message that comes over here is that even if school management thinks in the most traditional terms about school effectiveness, this effectiveness is promoted through listening to children via their councils and acting on their advice.

There are some admirable chapters written by practitioners on developing participation and thus advocacy in the classroom. Useful ideas are given in grouping, drama and recognising children's success. A particularly valuable case study is given of one primary school - its ethos, its communications with parents, and its rules. Examples are given of questionnaires which go to parent, child and teacher about each child in the school.

New territory is explored here not just for special education but for inclusive education in all schools. The book will be read profitably by both policy-makers and class teachers. And, incidentally, although it is a compilation, you can hardly see the joins. It is intelligently sectioned and the introductions to sections link chapters. What a refreshing change.

Gary Thomas is professor of education at the University of the West of England

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