Student autonomy is hard to come by in schools. These days, curriculum constraints on time and content delivery force us to hand hold more than we might like and socially, as a society, we are much more aware of the delicate line that we tread between providing appropriate challenge and causing stress.
Yet we must fight this trend to sideline autonomy. Only through autonomy will young people find their own views, their own opinions, their politics, their style, their self, their being. And in order for us to be rich as a society, in culture and arts, as well as innovation in business and enterprise, we have to search for and develop autonomy in our children.
But how? It might be understandable that schools do not have the confidence to put autonomy at the heart of their working practice. What if it went wrong? What if the control was lost? What if we didn’t agree with what the students said?
I would suggest that getting it wrong, losing control and disagreeing must be a good thing if we are encouraging young people to find their voice and be themselves.
At The BRIT School, we make autonomy a priority. Walk around our school and you will often see student-led classrooms, performances and operations. You might think that this would create anarchy, but it doesn’t: we trust our students and they, almost always, respond by getting on with things. The teacher is there if needed, but if they are not needed in certain situations, why have them take on tasks that the students can do themselves?
Here’s a classic example of a BRIT school project that has many pitfalls but ones that must be faced. We study political art across all subjects and look at the people who have influenced it, including Bertolt Brecht, Yoko Ono, Debbie Tucker Green, Sergei Eisenstein, Pina Bausch, Marvin Gaye and the Kabakovs. Students then create their own response as they discover their own political views and how to represent them.
This year, they have produced work that has explored the feminist rock band Pussy Riot, the Black Panthers, the #MeToo movement, transgender politics, knife crime, Brexit, xenophobia, prejudices about mental health and the underfunding of the NHS. With no censorship.
This can lead to challenges, tensions and arguments but also to debate, solutions, ideas and change. Importantly, respecting young people enough to give them space and time to discover their political voice will also lead to self-confidence, maturity, communication, development and an enriched community.
Another example: school uniform. It’s a debate as old as the hills, but is school uniform really that helpful? Is uniformity productive? I’m not necessarily anti-school uniform but we all know it leads to tension and rebellion. And time wasted at the school gate, on the phone and in emails to parents, for the sake of a missing button, or – an example I recently heard about – for the “wrong colour black” black shoes.
As young people grow, the search is for identity, for self. Yet we, as educationalists, often say “no, you must not be an individual between the hours of 8.30am and 3.30pm”. We say some haircuts aren’t suitable. We control, and with that control, what happens? Tension and rebellion.
At The BRIT School, our approach is to say to our students: “You are coming to work, you are professional, so dress accordingly. We encourage you to find your individuality and your professionalism”. And they do. Offensive messages and impractical clothes are, of course, not encouraged nor allowed, but time is not wasted on tie shape, nose piercings and hairclips.
From this respect of autonomous image, mutual respect for others grows and, with that, self-confidence. Behavioural problems reduce. There is no need for a school bell. Everyone can tell the time and gets to work when they are supposed to.
Finally, what about genuine collaboration with our students? Not a week goes by when a student doesn’t come to me with an idea and it is rare for me to say no. Kate Nash, a former student and now successful singer and actor, used to say you “do it yourself” – believing that only you can make your own success, rather than waiting for a label/manager/agent to approach you and make it happen.
The “just do it” attitude is instilled in our students and we see the living proof of it in those who have entered the creative industries armed with self-belief and drive. Take music artists Loyle Carner and Rex Orange County, poet and author Laura Dockrill and broadcaster Gemma Cairney – former students whose attitude and drive, whose belief in their sense and own identity I like to think was forged on the anvil of The BRIT School.
Yes, they could have failed and, yes, they still might fall short of their professional dreams, but I believe that they are better equipped as human beings, given their experiences at the school, to deal with that.
We must, as educationalists, be brave and let our children have their heads sometimes. That approach, which I like to think we take at the school, promotes responsibility, original thinking, courage and individuality. And with that, autonomy.
Stuart Worden is headteacher at the BRIT School