Why we need to listen to the customer

6th October 1995 at 01:00
Pupils learn better when the school treats them with respect, says Jean Ruddock.

The voices of students are rarely heard in the debates about school failure and success. In part, this is because there are some obvious problems in the contributions of pupils' voices to school improvement. The first is the inevitably personalised nature of the comments: pupils talk about their school and their teachers and the comments are not always appreciative.

Another problem is that policy makers, both in and outside school, may not credit pupils with the capacity to make constructive judgments on their schooling.

But young people are observant, are often capable of analytical and constructive comment, and usually respond well to the responsibility, when given it, of helping to identify what it is about their schooling that get in the way of learning.

Our interviews with 90 pupils in three secondary schools suggest most pupils from all achievement levels and backgrounds, want to succeed. Many pupils claim that if teachers treated them more openly and fairly and with more respect then they would be more ready to respond constructively in school.

Behind the public mask of nonchalance that some wear to hide their anxiety about the future is a concern to succeed and some realisation of the consequences of not making the grade. But some pupils arrive at this realisation too late to build the foundation knowledge and skills that they need to achieve in the 16-plus assessment stakes. The options then are to stay in school and brave it out or drop out. Efforts to change the conditions of learning might start by inviting pupils to talk about what makes learning difficult for them, what diminishes their motivation and engagement, and what makes some give up and others settle for a "minimum risk, minimum effort" position - even though they know that doing well matters.

Children in schools are not commonly regarded as socially competent when it comes to making decisions about their institutional lives. The traditional exclusion of young people from the consultive processes is founded upon an outdated view of childhood which fails to acknowledge children's capacity to reflect on issues affecting them.

Out of school, many young people find themselves involved in complex relationship and situations, whether within the family or the peer group. They carry tough responsibilities, balancing multiple roles and often finding themselves dealing with conflicting loyalties. The structures of secondary schooling offer, on the whole, less responsibility and autonomy than many young people are accustomed to outside school, and relatively little space for learning-related tensions to be opened up and explored.

While most young people want to do well and are appreciative of the efforts of most teachers to help them, there is a need to review patterns of motivation and engagement in secondary schools and the broader institutional frameworks or regimes - what we call the conditions of learning - that shape them (see below).

These principles - respect, fairness, autonomy, challenge, support and security - operate within and through organisational structures and relationships and, according to the degree that they are present for each pupil, they lead to different patterns of commitment and confidence among young learners.

The organisational structure that most obviously shape the different patterns of opportunity and advantage that different pupils experience in school and that affect their sense of self as learner are: o the way that material and human resources are allocated to different groups of pupils and tasks and what priorities area reflected o the ways different cohorts of pupils are divided and labelled o the system for informing pupils about and explaining the rationale for rules, regimes or new procedures (including homework, course work, examinations and so on) o the way time in school is organised for learning, administration and social activity; and the extent to which, for some groups of pupils, possible "time on task" is reduced; o the way time for learning is divided into lessons of a particular length and number.

o the way rewards and sanctions are handled and expectations of achievement are communicated.

Our interviews suggest that what we should be concerned about are the messages that teacher-pupil interaction communicates to pupils about themselves, both as learners and as people.

Professor Jean Rudduck is director of Homerton College, Cambridge

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