My Left-Field Lesson - Environment of trust

20th December 2013 at 00:00
Break down barriers so that students feel able to share problems

Every time an incident involving a child appears in the national press, a question is asked that everyone seems to believe is entirely reasonable: why did the teachers not know?

Whether it is a five-year-old neglected at home, a 10-year-old boy distributing pornography to his friends or a 15-year-old girl sexually assaulted by a fellow student - or, worse still, a member of staff - the question of why teachers did not realise something was up is asked again and again.

The issue is not as black and white as those outside schools may think. Yes, there are protocols, procedures and training that can help teachers to spot a child who is in trouble and manage the situation, but sometimes a teacher only knows that something is wrong if the student or the student's friends tell them about it.

The problem with this is that children don't readily confide in their teachers: the power of the teacher to punish often prevents them from opening up. Yet there is a way of creating an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their concerns, pioneered at AS Neill's Summerhill School in Suffolk, England.

This alternative co-educational boarding school holds a formal gathering known as "the Meeting". This involves the whole school - students and staff - and a relaxed approach is taken to the discussion of sexual matters, drugs and other issues that are often seen as difficult. Any problems can be aired without fear of recrimination or embarrassment, and everyone who wishes to speak is given a chance to do so.

What follows is a frank and robust exchange where any issue can be raised in an equal, peer-to-peer way, by students and by teachers. By breaking down the barriers between teachers and students and giving everyone the power to speak, disclosure of incidents and issues is made easier.

It is an approach that many will look on sceptically, questioning how open students would actually be and how practical it would be to implement. Yes, getting the Meeting or an equivalent system working properly is a big ask, and it requires a change in mentality for the whole school, but the rewards are substantial and research shows that it can be successful.

In a 2008 study, Ian Stronach and Heather Piper highlight that Summerhill mitigates against secrecy in school. The authors add that human behaviours such as touching in a relaxed and happy way are made feasible at Summerhill because the Meeting allows any potential discomfort to be discussed by the whole school.

This last point is crucial. If we are unafraid to let children speak in a whole-school setting on an equal level to teachers, and we give them free rein to talk openly about difficult issues, the hierarchical structure of schools that prevents disclosures can be broken down.

Dr Helen E Lees is research fellow at the University of Stirling and associate research fellow at York St John University. She is the author of Silence in Schools and Education Without Schools


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