Try listening to students for a change

20th December 2002 at 00:00
I was once asked at an interview what piece of writing had influenced me most. On that occasion, I did a quick calculation and concluded that it would be sensible to choose something that the members of the panel would be unlikely to know. I selected Samuel Johnson's poem The Vanity of Human Wishes (which, I also thought, had a nice ironic significance in the context of an interview). I got the job.

If I were to be asked the same question under less pressurised circumstances, and restricted to choosing a book on education, one that would be on my shortlist would be Tell Them From Me, edited by Lesley Gow and Andrew McPherson. It was a pioneering study, published more than 20 years ago, which sought to represent the voices of young people reflecting on their educational experiences. Their views were canvassed about a year after leaving school and particular attention was given to those who had few or no qualifications - in pre-Standard grade terms, the "non-certificate" pupils.

From one perspective, their accounts were deeply depressing as they recounted stories of neglect, punishment and humiliation, and complained about the irrelevance of the curriculum for life beyond school. But from another angle, their serious reflections on what had happened to them, their struggles to overcome the inadequacy of what school had offered, and their determination that it should be different for the next generation, were profoundly moving.

Researching the voices of children and young people is now a well-established form of enquiry. And there is no doubt that the situation has improved considerably since the Gow and McPherson study. Children's rights are taken more seriously and are supported by legislation which requires that they should be consulted on matters that affect them. There are school and college councils, and the widespread use of "circle time" in primary schools encourages children to voice their opinions early on. Some recent official reports have been strongly informed by the views of young people who present particular challenges to the educational system, for example, those who have special educational needs and those who are looked after by local authorities.

We are moving in the right direction, but is this enough? Young people themselves can be rather sceptical. In one Scottish study, the following comment was made by a senior pupil: "We do get a say and (the teachers) do listen, but not necessarily anything is done about it. It's as if they are trying to prove they are listening but they don't pay attention to what we think." In other words, consultation can be regarded as tokenistic.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that pupils' voices should always be acted on, or that they are invariably right in what they say. Sometimes they will be ill-informed, or unfair or mischievous in their comments. But there are powerful reasons why we should pay serious attention to them.

First, the purpose of schooling is to benefit young people - their development is what the whole enterprise is about. To disregard their view of what happens to them is, at the least, ill advised and, at worst, perverse. Second, the process of encouraging them to find a voice, and equipping them with the skills to express it effectively, is in itself highly educative. It enables them better to question and challenge the many "official" voices they will encounter throughout life. Third, the educative significance of this process extends to teachers - listening to the voices of young people is a form of professional development.

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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