Out of the mouths of babes

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Whether it's face-to-face or online, pupils are finding ways to discuss how they learn. And their teachers are listening too. Sue Learner reports

The voice of the pupil is at last being listened to, and in the words of one headteacher, "It is revolutionary". The idea of children wandering around different schools armed with clipboards giving their opinions may make traditionalists throw up their hands in horror.

But Sue Attard, student voice headteacher consultant for the Bedfordshire Schools Improvement Partnership (BSIP), believes listening to children who are networking with pupils from other schools is "common sense".

"I can't see how teachers can continue to be driven by data to reach the attainment levels children need,' she says. "If the children in schools understand what the teachers are trying to do, they can show empathy for the teachers."

The BSIP NLC, which is made up of 24 of its networked schools, was set up four years ago, and one element of it is the "learning walks" which take place every term. These involve pupils aged from seven to 18 meeting pupils from other schools, observing lessons and looking at what works and what does not. "We get feedback such as they would like to have water in the classroom or they would like to work with a friend," says Ms Attard.

Some of these ideas are now being implemented in the different schools in the partnership.

Gemini Mawson, 8, of Balliol lower school, went on a recent learning walk and thought it was "fabulous". "As a group, we made some rules," she says.

"We agreed we needed to be quiet in the classroom and that we should say thank you when we'd finished. When we talked to the pupils, we tried not to keep them long and we said that we'd keep what we thought just to our group.

"It was interesting going into different numeracy lessons, we felt like reporters writing things down on a clipboard. We also thought it was good that we got to say what we thought instead of adults doing it."

Ms Attard admits implementing feedback from the learning walks can be "very patchy across the schools as it all depends on how much they have bought into the programme".

This can throw up the problem of children being able to voice their opinion in one school but being unable to speak out in the same way in a different school, she says.

Giving children a voice requires a lot of effort from the school. "We had to do a lot of work with the children to give them the authority to speak out and to teach them to be respectful of the adults they are working with.

You have to lay a lot of groundwork." The way to give pupils a voice and network with pupils from other schools is to change the culture of the school, according to Ms Attard. "We are seeing many more children able to talk about how they feel when they are learning and what irritates them.

Meeting children from neighbouring schools has also given them more confidence in talking to both their peers and the teachers. It has also led to teachers becoming more aware of how they have to involve the children in the lessons."

While some pupils are meeting face-to-face to discuss how they learn, others are doing it online. To encourage this, some schools have set up educational chat rooms that are supervised by teachers.

Cheslyn Hay primary school in Staffordshire has launched its own internet chatroom so pupils can take part in online debates without compromising their safety. The chatroom is an enclosed learning community in its own right, according to the school, and teachers even suggest topics for pupils to discuss with recent debates covering subjects such as school rules on the use of mobile phones. However, many schools ban chatrooms because of the risks they pose and the difficulties in monitoring the content.

A chatroom set up for pupils at Holy Rood high school in Edinburgh was recently closed down after complaints it was being used to organise bullying. Lists were being made of the school's ugliest pupils and teachers were being verbally abused.

To counter this kind of behaviour, the Department for Education and Skills has set up GridClub SuperClubs where children can chat safely to other GridClub members around the country. This is thought to be the biggest online primary classroom in the world, where more than 100,000 children aged six to 12 meet friends and learn together, during school and at home.

Another such website is Global Learning Communities, where school children can contact pupils in other countries all over the world and have discussions online. It is also working hard to involve children outside mainstream education such as looked-after and excluded children.

Non Worrall, an educational consultant for the National College for School Leadership, which originally set up Networked Learning Communities where schools join together to work on joint pupil learning, believes the benefits of pupil networking and pupil voice, both formally and informally, are "enormous". "They can share the way they think and the ways they look at things. But most importantly, it makes children see themselves differently and realise they can be agents of change in their own lives."

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