Take the voice of pupils more seriously, No 10

1st February 2008 at 00:00
In his most recent book, Over to You, Mr Brown, Anthony Giddens, principal architect of New Labour's "third way", offers advice to the new tenant at No 10.

Four of his prescriptions are familiar. Overhaul the curriculum and implement the Tomlinson report on qualifications reform. Develop school leadership at all levels. Involve parents as co-educators. And reform and simplify school funding.

However, the item that tops his list may come as a surprise. Giddens particularly commends the "extension of greater choice and voice to pupils themselves". "Listen to what they have to say about how to improve their educational experience." Experience in other countries, he suggests, shows that it can have "tangible and positive results on educational attainment".

When Jean Rudduck, my partner, and her Cambridge colleagues published School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us? back in the mid-1990s, the idea of engaging pupils as partners in school improvement was viewed as fairly novel - even quaint. Few schools were doing anything in this area and most were resistant to the idea.

Ten years on, the Government hands out advice about the importance of consulting young people, the Every Child Matters legislation highlights the need to engage pupils in decision-making, and Ofsted routinely asks them for their views.

But very little of this flurry of pupil-related activity has, as yet, impinged on daily life in classrooms. As David Hargreaves, of Wolfson College, Cambridge, has observed: "It is possible ... to increase student test performance while weakening student commitment to learning." In other words, the cost of concentrating on measurable outcomes at the expense of student motivation and engagement has become increasingly clear.

In Improving Learning through Consulting Pupils, published this week, Jean and her co-author Donald McIntyre explore the impact of harnessing pupils' insights. Schools found four main benefits: it promotes a more positive sense of learning, it helps build better relationships with teachers, it creates a stronger sense of agency in pupils, and it provides opportunities for reflection.

Pupils were quick to note the changes in teachers embarking on this route. One Year 8 remarked: "She kind of changed a lot the way she teaches"; another said that her teacher "asks for our opinions a lot more".

The Government has funded some small-scale projects but, to date, the impetus to consult pupils has flowed primarily from teachers. As Gill Mullis, a teacher, has commented: "I know from working with students that the more you talk with them and involve them, the more it changes the learning relationship." Others have talked of the excitement of rediscovering their own sense of professionalism.

Jean and Donald's book brings together the findings from an Economic and Social Research Council-funded programme. It draws on almost 20 inquiries, conducted over the past five years, involving hundreds of teachers and their pupils. Generated in many schools, its recommendations can truly be described as "classroom-tested".

Jean and Donald identify five stages through which a school must travel before it can fully release pupils' learning capacity. Most schools, they conclude, are about halfway there; they understand the need to engage with pupils and have started to experiment, but are uncertain or nervous about how best to proceed.

Sadly, neither author lived to see the fruits of their collaboration. Jean lost her year-long battle against ovarian cancer last March, just three weeks after sending the manuscript to the publishers, while Donald succumbed to a heart attack in October on his return from working in Africa. Their legacy is a tour de force that combines Donald's unswerving instinct for supporting teachers with Jean's lifelong commitment to the transformative potential of taking pupils seriously.

'Improving Learning through Consulting Pupils' Jean Rudduck and Donald McIntyre is published by Routledge, price pound;21.99.

John Gray, Professor of Education at Cambridge University.

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