Giving pupils a say in what they're taught is not just a growing trend - it's official . Andrew Mourant reports
Children with learning and behavioural needs in special schools can easily get used to having everything done for them. But that's not the case at Willow Grove primary near Wigan, where, over the past two years, the school council has found a true voice. Willow Grove, in Ashton in Makerfield, was one of seven primary, secondary and special schools chosen to take part in a project teaching children to do their own research to find out what their peers thought of the curriculum and what they'd like to see happen in future.
At weekly meetings, class representatives aged four and upwards discuss ways of making things better for pupils. They have, for instance, taken an interest in nutrition, campaigning for the introduction of "healthy tuck".
Previously, the council's focus had been around small responsibilities and jobs they could do.
"I wanted to take them away from that so every child's comment would be heard," says Shirley Latham, the teaching assistant who runs Willow Grove's council.
School Councils UK has been training primary and secondary councils in research methods, part of a project with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It wasn't to be merely a survey of what children felt about the timetable; the point was to encourage thought and decision-making about different ways of uncovering information. The authority wants pupils to have a significant voice in the way the curriculum is shaped in their schools.
"We need to change the perception that there's a top-down approach," says Lucy Walters of the QCA's futures and innovation team. "In reality, there's a huge amount of flexibility. We want people to recognise that."
The authority's work with School Councils UK has been about getting a national perspective on what young people find interesting. "Some schools have students doing their own lesson evaluation. There are excellent examples of this - it isn't just a bright idea from the QCA," says Ms Walters. "With any experience that's working well, it's about getting the students to tell you. Certain approaches work for some young people and not others. It's about getting feedback. Teachers can only amend things when they're aware of them. But it isn't, for example, an opportunity for students to say 'I don't like doing maths therefore I don't want to be taught'."
First-hand views from pupils in a small number of schools are being obtained as part of the key stage 3 review, which goes out for consultation next year. They have been invited to conferences along with teachers and other staff.
"They've been remarkably eloquent," says Ms Walters, although she stresses the need to "manage expectations" about whether or not their views will be acted upon. "We have to make clear that it's part of a much larger information collection exercise from young people."
So what messages is the authority hearing from the grassroots? "ICT is regularly mentioned - students want teachers to use it more and also to use it more themselves," says Lucy Walters.
"They also say that doing things, rather than being told something, makes life more interesting. But they don't want to be active all the time - that might get too much."
One task the schools councils have been given is to devise action plans containing questions they would ask and how they would ask them. Six weeks later the schools were revisited to see how they had got on.
At Willow Grove, which has 56 pupils and eight council members, it was kept simple. "We agreed on one basic question: what makes us a better school?"
says Shirley Latham. "The children chose to use a questionnaire and a grafitti board where everyone could write or draw opinions."
There were some touching answers. "Often it was just about being accepted - all our pupils come from other schools," says the headteacher, Valda Pearson. One pupil describes the difference they found at Willow Grove: "We are allowed to sit on chairs." At other places they had sat on the carpet.
"A lot said they liked doing maths, though a lot of us weren't keen on spelling or other work," says Savannah, 11, who has been on the council for a year.
There was a high approval rating for the staff. "The teachers are nice - they help you more than in other schools," says Patrick, nine. The findings were colourfully displayed on large sheets of paper in pictures or words.
When the project researchers returned, the children were asked: what next? So a decision was made to find ways of showing appreciation for the staff and an action plan drawn up by the council. "What are you going to do? - give them a special mention in assembly. How? - once a week. Problems to be aware of? Make sure no one is left out."
The exercise reinforced the benefits of having a council that is listened to. "Self-esteem and behaviour has improved," says Mrs Pearson. "There's a lot of emphasis on them being good role models. They know if they misbehave they can lose their place."
Using a graffiti board was also favoured at St James Church of England primary in Stourbridge, which has 400 pupils and where the council, introduced by deputy head Linda Perkins, is in its third year.
"Our research looked at how children learn, what they find interesting and fun," says Anne Penn, the head. "We used various methods: Year 6 had a board on which children put pieces of paper and recorded their thoughts; Year 5 designed an online questionnaire; while Year 2s had the option of giving answers in writing or pictures."
One thing that emerged was a desire for more practical activities; glass blowing, a traditional local industry, and cookery were mentioned.
Eleanor, 11, who chairs the St James council, described it as "an absolute privilege" to take part with the QCA. "They taught us about communication and how to talk to others," she says. "We asked things like 'is a teacher's job only to teach; is the teacher doing a good job; and in what way is the teacher doing a good job.' In the answers they said teachers should help them and tell them when they're making mistakes."
At Hanham high, an 11 to 18 comprehensive near Bristol, where the headteacher, Peggy Farrington, introduced a council six years ago, the project yielded masses of data. "They chose an online survey; to run focus groups; and to run a questionnaire by one in two tutor groups across the school age range," she says.
"Some results mirrored our recent Ofsted report, which said that student voices were strong across the school, and also reflected a liking for patient teachers who enjoyed their subject."
The research found that gaining performing arts college status had made an impact, bringing more resources and improved ICT provision. "Also - and this surprised me - they said they enjoyed learning from friends," says Peggy Farrington.
Some pupils felt assessment grades should be for the benefit of the learner rather than ranking schools while - unsurprisingly - many felt there were too many exams. Other findings were that pupils would like to learn more life skills; acquire more business skills; and, curiously, learn self-defence in PE -which does not, Peggy Farrington hastens to add, indicate a bullying problem.
She feels a flourishing council helps lift the school. "When I first came it wasn't considered cool - pupils would volunteer others who messed about," she says. "Now you have to nominate yourself - write in 50 words why you want to do it. It gives a lot of status and improved confidence."