Nipped in the bud

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Pupils feel marginalised and dictated to after moving to secondary school, research finds

RIGHTS AND responsibilities enjoyed by primary school pupils are curtailed when they move into the more authoritarian and exam-driven setting of secondary school, according to new research.

It shows that P6 and P7 pupils are often encouraged to take considerable responsibility in their school's decision-making and to discuss controversial issues. Follow-up research, however, indicates that the same children feel marginalised amid more traditional teaching styles at secondary school.

The findings emerged in Strathclyde University research questioning whether the aspirations of citizenship education - that children be regarded as active, competent and vocal members of society and exposed to a democratic ethos - are being put into practice.

The longitudinal study took place between 2003 and 2005, with 150 P6 and P7 pupils from five diverse primary schools across Scotland providing the starting point. It looked at pupil councils and involvement in decision-making, the extent to which pupils influenced how they learned, and discussion of controversial issues.

Ross Deuchar, research degrees co-ordinator in Strathclyde University's education faculty, explained at a conference last week that older primary school pupils often enjoyed a great deal of responsibility. In some cases they are involved in important decision-making; in one South Lanarkshire school - part of another study by the university - pupils were involved in the appointment of the depute head. Controversial topical issues such as the war in Iraq and sectarianism are discussed, and older pupils are given responsibilty for looking after younger children.

Once children get to secondary school, however, there is a general feeling of marginalisation and that everything is dictated. "The picture seemed to be an awful lot more negative in secondary schools," said Dr Deuchar.

S1 pupils often experience more traditional teaching styles, and there is less opportunity for active learning and consultation about important issues in the school. Where they are involved in decisions, it is often restricted to "very basic" choices, such as which musical instruments to play, or which extra-curricular club to attend.

Pupil councils are supported in principle, but not always in practice. They are often quite weak and restricted to issues around the playground, toilets and dining hall. In one school, a smoking ban proposed by pupils was backed until it transpired that it would extend to the staffroom. "It was this whole business that (staff) were happy to go along with it as long as they were not affected," Dr Deuchar said.

The research points to an over-emphasis on exams and the "authoritarian"

views of teachers as common reasons for the negative experiences of pupils at secondary school.

Dr Deuchar presented his paper at the international Transforming Transitions conference at Strathclyde University last week, where he led a session with colleague Henry Maitles, head of curricular studies at the university's education faculty.

Mr Maitles identified the less rigid approaches in primary schools as being more conducive to fostering citizenship: "You learn about democracy through democracy."

He believed that the more authoritarian approach at secondary school might be explained by a fear of adolesecence, but that the sheer number of pupils was also a factor: "Teachers feel much more confident about letting go when the classes are smaller."

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