Why not let children play a leading role?

2nd March 2007 at 00:00
Anthony Seldon is master of Wellington College in Berkshire.

I am writing this after Monday's weekly assembly.JI had always taken assembly myself, with colleagues adding bits and pieces.JToday, the prefects ran it, as they have done for the past year.JThe deputy head pupil began by praising his peers for how well they had done since half-term and advised on how to make the most of their time until the Easter holidays begin; another prefect read out the arts and procedural notices; and a third read out the sports results and forthcoming fixtures.J They were funny, touching, personal.JI merely rounded off assembly with a sub-rhetorical flourish. I leave it to readers to ponder on who the pupils listen to more intently: their peers or their head.

In British schools, we are under-using one of their greatest resources: the pupils, who can and should be given much more responsibility.JPupils'

behaviour perfectly mirrors the way they are treated. If they are treated with respect, and given trust and responsibility, they rise to it. True, errors will be made along the way, and the reactionaries and bores in the staffrooms will say of the head: "Bloody fool to have thought you can ever trust kids - they will always let you down." And some will.J But schools must be daring places and should not listen to those who belittle innovation or stretching pupils beyond what convention says they can do.J Caution and safety in schools are the enemies of their becoming exciting and wonderful places.

In the United States in the 1990s, I first encountered "honor codes", drawn up by the pupils as the set of values which they want to see upheld. Pupils sit alongside teachers in judgment of pupils who have breached that code.JI saw their school councils in action: pupils have a real voice in policy decisions and regular meetings with the school management and governors.JChildren are involved in assessing teachers' performance, and even their selection, and pupils' careers are rounded off in a splendid "graduation" ceremony.

All British schools should adopt such graduation events.JI am amazed that hardly any do when they are such an integral part of life in schools in the US and other countries. Make older pupils (including naughty ones) responsible for mentoring younger ones. The unions won't like it, but whose interest are they defending?JPupils should also, as is increasingly happening, be involved in the selection of senior teachers. But we have a long way to go.

Is it because we are afraid that, in giving pupils greater responsibility, they will rise to it and show up their teachers?JDo heads and senior managers continue to give assemblies themselves because deep down they fear that the pupils might do it better, and the whole school prefer it?JOr have they never thought of it?JIndeed, have they never thought of giving pupils far greater responsibilities in any form?JIn which case, why are they school leaders, if they lack the imagination?JAfter all, what is it we are trying to do in schools if it is not to help our young grow into responsible and capable adults?JThese are serious questions, and more important than the Government or schools think they are.

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