Platform: Do pupils always come first?

24th October 1997 at 01:00
I began my teaching career in an Edwardian school in the south side of Glasgow. Although there was a certain character about the building, it was clear that the architects of the former School Board of Glasgow did not go a bundle on putting the interests of the pupils first. The cold stone floors in the corridor were complemented by the high windows in the classrooms. A view on the outside world was always tantalisingly out of reach. Of course, by that time more than 70 years had passed since the school had opened. Our attitudes towards pupils have undergone a sea-change since the turn of the century. Almost complacently, we can convince ourselves that we always put the interests of our pupils first. But do we?

As we reflect on how much has changed, perhaps we also need to ponder on how little has changed. Three questions will illustrate the point.

Do we ask young people for their views about what characterises good teaching?

Most secondary schools would claim to involve pupils in the decision-making process. Initiatives such as school councils or consultative groups are not be scoffed at. If they run effectively, they can be a good channel of communication and can assist in the smooth running of a school. But rarely, if ever, do they seek pupils' views on styles of teaching. We take it largely for granted that active teaching will lead to learning, albeit of a passive nature. But how do pupils perceive differences? Are they confused by inconsistency of approach? What excites or enthuses them? How and when do they learn best?

Perhaps it goes against the grain given the traditional authority of the dominie, but are we really convinced that a style of teaching that developed out of the move to mass education is necessarily appropriate for a new millennium? We make much about the dissemination of good practice but this is largely based on value judgments made by other adults. Do we allow young people any say on what works for them?

Do we teach to learn?

In the end, we all want our pupils to learn on the back of our teaching. But we are still remarkably unsure about how to teach young people to learn by themselves. We have failed to harness the liberating power of information technology, often for very good reasons. Most schools have too few computers and even fewer have networked facilities. Where computers are used, they still fulfil relatively low-level functions. Urgent work needs to be done to find new ways of learning where pupils want to, and know how to, learn for themselves.

Yet, this is a two-way process. Pupils have to take responsibility for their learning. Research and experience demonstrate that initiatives such as breakfast clubs, homework clubs, Saturday schools, summer literacy schools and work-based learning can motivate young people if we give them a chance and they can grasp the opportunity. There is much talk about key skills such as communication and IT on top of basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. We need to think about a category of core skills which might include target setting and time management.

Do we demand the best from our young people?

Teachers in Scotland begin with an advantage over their English counterparts. Generally speaking, they are held in higher regard, not just by their pupils but across the wider community. Yet there is no room for complacency because we are all working in an increasingly anti-education, or at least anti-schooling, culture.

The worst thing we could do is look for a false familiarity between teachers and pupils. Taking the views of young people seriously does not mean pretending that there is equality in the relationship between teacher and pupil. In some ways there is a need to reassert the authority of the teacher, not in a narrow disciplinary sense but to emphasise the value of learning. Interestingly, a recent study carried out by Bristol University highlighted the extent to which French children saw a good teacher as one who was devoted to all the pupils, insisted on hard work and ensured that the syllabus were covered. English children, by contrast were more concerned with having a teacher who did not make them work too hard, allowed some play and organised lots of enjoyable activities.

This is not a plea for Scottish teachers to reincarnate themselves as a latter-day John Knox. Yet we should not be ashamed to promote the symbolism of learning whether it be prize-givings, prefect systems or a simple achievement assembly at the end of each week. Putting it more sharply, the most successful teachers are those that encourage a "don't dare fail" culture in their classrooms. Pupils know who they are and usually respond accordingly. There are teachers or departments that succeed despite the odds and who buck the trend even within their own institution.

Equally, the status of teachers is also vital. Pupils will only be excited, motivated, enthused and high-achieving if teachers have the same level of motivation. We should not shirk from saying this loudly and clearly.

So, if schools want to answer these questions honestly and put their young people first, here are 10 steps which they can take:

- Commission properly constituted research, either internally or externally, and seek pupils' view about styles of teaching.

- Use departmental level data in secondary schools to pose questions about the performance of pupils in different subjects. Be brutal in your self-criticism.

- Take a lesson or a series of lessons in a particular area of the curriculum and put IT at the heart of the learning process. Evaluate and disseminate.

- Hold at least one event a week, for the whole school or part of the school, which is a tangible acknowledgement of success.

- Require all pupils to set themselves some learning targets that are revisited at different times of the year.

- Establish at least one activity that takes learning outside the traditional school day, whether it be a homework club, literacy school or home-learning package.

- Find at least one new way to engender pride in the school. For example, establish an in-house good citizenship award or promote inter-class or form challenges to improve attendance at school.

- Establish a formal course in study skills, time management and goal setting.

- Develop a "buddy-buddy" system which pairs older children with younger children. Use adult volunteers as the role for model pupils.

- Create a "don't dare fail" culture and be relentless in your demand that pupils aim high and achieve the best.

In the end, "putting young people first" can be empty rhetoric. It is not simply about teachers or pupils working harder. Rather, it is about everyone working smarter. More of the same is simply not sufficient to deal with the challenges of a new millennium.

This article is an edited extract of a speech given by David Bell, chief education officer, Newcastle City Council, at this week's national conference in Glasgow organised by HMI, on "Putting Young People First".

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