Pupil views? No, let them make decisions

31st July 2009 at 01:00
Secondary students should be treated as partners in education, argues a school democracy pioneer

For too long schools have taken a tick-box approach to student engagement. They have relied on conventional structures such as school councils to ensure the "pupil voice" is heard. While these are effective when the students on them are democratically elected and given real power, many involve a limited group of students and fail to engage most of the student body.

Councils are often used to gather feedback on topics such as uniforms, meals, toilets and deciding whether to spend the Pounds 100 budget on a water fountain or put towards repairing the minibus. All are worthy matters for discussion, but schools rarely engage students more meaningfully, or ask them about teaching and learning.

Sadly, the average student's experience of secondary school involves being placed in a passive learning environment where they are expected to absorb masses of facts and then regurgitate them in an exam.

Despite all the talk of `personalised learning' from politicians and education academics, we have seen only limited progress in this arena - quite understandably given the immense pressure placed on teachers to adhere to the curriculum and ensure targets are met and grades achieved.

In Schools Secretary Ed Balls' 21st Century Schools white paper, published last month, we were introduced to to the notion of a "pupil guarantee" and student "entitlements". As the founder of the English Secondary Students' Association (ESSA) - an organisation led by young people aimed at giving students a voice in the education system - the concept of student "entitlements" sounds commendable.

Yet although it mentions students being guaranteed "a clear say on how the school is doing and how it can be improved", the guarantee has stopped short of delivering what we require and should expect from a 21st century education system, where students are at the centre.

Students should not merely be invited to give feedback on how the school is doing but be active, engaged co-constructors of their education. If we are serious about developing young people's employability and skills, and increasing involvement in decision-making and wider democracy, we need to start in schools. This should involve having students involved at all levels of decision-making, from the classroom to being associate governors.

Some schools are already adopting new models of student engagement. At Valentines High in Redbridge, for example, students act as "learning consultants" they give teachers feedback, while Greenford High in Ealing has "junior leadership teams" that mirror the functions of the senior management team. But much more can be done to make such practices mainstream.

Any pupil guarantee should push the boundaries of student engagement further. After all, the students are the "end-user" in the education system. This is a fundamental right. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to express views on all matters affecting them. What greater matter affects the lives of children than the education they receive?

The mass-production approach to schooling fails many students. There is an obsession with the five A*-C grade GCSE target, yet much more worrying is that about 90,000 pupils left school last year without any GCSEs. And that up to 10,000 children a year drop out by the age of 14, many of whom are unemployable.

What is going wrong? Have we asked these young people why the system is not working for them? If we are serious about giving "entitlements" why not ask students what they want to be entitled to in the first place?

At ESSA, we are working to ensure that we engage those young people not in mainstream education (the so-called Neets) to find out their views, and to ensure that the education system stops failing more and more young people who feel disconnected and disillusioned with the status quo.

Surely the Government's plan to raise the age for compulsory education to 18 will only exacerbate this discontent? School should be a place that young people want, rather than are obliged, to attend. If we face an issue with Neets now, I dread to imagine what impact this change will have if the system does not adapt to meet the students' needs. Rather than rely on coercion, why not try co-operation and treat students as partners in the education improvement process?

At ESSA, we are doing just that. We recently ran a competition supported by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and Channel 4, where we asked students to submit videos about their views on education.

These ideas have all fed into our Manifesto for Change, which outlinines students' views on ways to improve the education system in Britain, which we will present to politicians and decision-makers before the next general election.

There was no shortage of ideas and enthusiasm. Entries came from students of all backgrounds and ages. The ideas were inspiring and included podcasts for revision; text reminders and updates for students; virtual and holographic learning; video conferences, forums and wikis to link to other students around the world.

Other students looked at ways in which the curriculum could be updated to include things like learning life skills, such as driving theory and car maintenance; learning and setting based on ability, not age; peer-led learning; more opportunities to volunteer and work in the community; a new timetable, with different timed days for students who learn best in the morning or afternoon, with longer lessons to reduce the proportion of wasted time at the beginning and end of every lesson. The competition demonstrated that students are equally passionate about improving the education system and that they are keen to share their ideas with those willing to listen.

Any pupil guarantee for the 21st century should uphold the notion of deep and meaningful student engagement in all aspects of schooling and education. Perhaps we will then begin to see more young people appreciating their "entitlement" to remain in education until 18 - and education will be something they do not merely endure but actually enjoy.

Rajeeb Dey founded the English Secondary Student Association while a pupil in 2003.

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