Take children's views seriously

5th December 1997 at 00:00
The poet D J Enright is one of many writers who waited until he was middle-aged before revealing what he hated most about his infant school: Learning bad grammar, then getting blamed for it: our Father which art in Heaven . . .

and one of the things that he liked best: Listening to Miss Anthony, our lovely Miss, Charming us dumb with The Wind in the Willows.

Sometimes such writing can be delightfully evocative. Laurie Lee's affectionate description of Miss Wardley's schoolroom in Cider With Rosie is a case in point. But education researchers such as Anne West, Jean Hailes and Pam Sammons arguably are providing an even more important public service with their new report which reveals the views of today's six and seven-year-olds on the schooling they are receiving (see page 3).

Canvassing pupils' opinions can, of course, be problematic - because they may be critical of individual teachers or schools. But Professor Jean Rudduck, director of Homerton College, Cambridge, is surely right to insist that pupils' voices should be heard much more often in debates about school failure and success. Her argument is that young people are observant, and are often capable of analytical and constructive comment which helps to identify deficiencies in their schooling. The case of Sarah Briggs has added substance to that view; she is the 15-year-old Mansfield girl who was disciplined for criticising her school in public - and then exonerated after local authority inspectors confirmed that it did indeed have "unacceptably low" standards.

But in general, it is not teenage whistle-blowers who are needed. As Professor Rudduck says, we should instead ask pupils what helps them to work hard, what types of teaching they value and what kinds of support they need. The young children quoted in the study by West, Hailes and Sammons said that they loved using computers, a finding that bodes well for the future (though the relative scarcity of computers in the infant classroom may have boosted their novelty value). But this research also reminds us that there is a danger of alienating children by concentrating exclusively on the 3Rs - and even on the popular computer work. Like previous generations, 1990s infants also love drawing, painting, and singing, and they must be given time for these and other forms of artistic expression which are so important for their overall development.

Pupils' preferences are not always heeded, however, even if they are wholly legitimate. A Warwick University doctoral student, Bruce Harris, who questioned GCSE pupils about school life (TES, June 6) found that they were quite clear about what they needed: help with their revision plans and a quiet room in which to study at lunchtime. They also wanted better communication between subject departments, because their homework and coursework deadlines often clashed. But when he reported these findings back to the six schools involved in his study, only one took immediate action.

Such reports probably portray schools as being more insensitive to their pupils' needs than they really are. After all, schools offer many more counselling services for children than they did a generation ago, and pupil councils are making some headway even if they appear to be more common north of the border. Nevertheless, the pupil voice is still too often stifled - or only allowed expression on extra-curricular or even extra-terrestrial topics such as God and the universe (see this week's Religious Education Extra, page II). The Values Forum, the body that is largely responsible for the new guidance to schools on how to foster the moral and spiritual development of children, says that pupils should learn to value themselves. But if that is to happen, adults in general - and schools in particular - will have to take children's views much more seriously than they do at present.

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