It is high time the zoo keepers gave the animals the keys to the enclosures

Gavin Horgan, Headmaster, Worksop CollegeThe era of ‘mother knows best’ is long past; why do we persist with it in education?

Good schools must involve children in meaningful ways in all areas of school life: staff recruitment, quality assurance, policy and curriculum development. There must be a sense of partnership between children, teachers and leaders and all parties need to feel respect for each other. Too many schools pay lip service to this, whilst in fact patronising children and hiding behind ‘professionalism’ as an excuse for shutting them out of key discussions and decisions.

Pupils are very canny consumers; they will give you a perfect analysis of the quality of teaching they receive from individual teachers in a second so why do we shy away from that invaluable insight? Children must play a key part in the recruitment of new teachers and in the appraisal of individual teachers and of course of leaders. If schools or teachers say something along the lines of, ‘this undermines our professionalism’ or ‘what if the children have an agenda to follow?’ my response to the school would be to suggest that the school has not yet done its job properly by providing an environment within which children know that their voice is used and respected and that therefore it comes with responsibilities. My response to the teacher would be to ask why they do not want that feedback. When recruiting a classroom teacher, I have very limited interest in how the candidate performs at interview and put much more store by the feedback from the pupils in the observed lesson.

To be fair to schools, many have only been responding to the infrastructure of inspection and the legacy issues of strategies that don’t care a fig for the views of children as they are so difficult to ‘measure’. Current systems of inspection and appraisal judge teachers as excellent or more significantly as requiring improvement (read: failure) based on no meaningful input from the key consumers and often on the opinion of an ill-qualified out of touch agent with a separate agenda. What other modern industry would tolerate that?

The same must be true of curriculum design and choice and too many schools have been reprehensible in their destruction of pupils’ passions through skewed subject choices and early or multiple entries that serve only to grade grub and secure the position of a weak school or leader for the next year or two.

The vast majority of children absolutely recognise the seriousness and importance of their education. There are very few bad children in our country. Problems arise in schools with weak leadership and governance where children quickly establish that there is not a culture or values that they respect or, sadly, no values at all. Most children are naturally conservative and have a moral compass - ask school councils across the land about younger years and sanctions; they will almost without exception recommend that sanctions should be increased rather than the opposite and they will always decry the behaviour of younger children.

There is a direct parallel with young voters and political engagement - the modest increase in youngsters voting in the last election should not be a solace to MPs. Youngsters tend to be more principled than adults and therefore should be the most politically active group in society. They will not bother to engage when they recognise (quickly) that MPs are not really interested in their views or involvement but in self aggrandisement - why would they? The same is true in school: pupils recognise the importance of what they are involved in but if they do not respect the way in which it is offered to them they will move on. And be honest, you would do the same.

By Gavin Horgan, Headmaster, Worksop College

  • FreeRiver Consulting

    A very thoughtful piece with a powerful message Gavin. I spent time working in the voluntary sector aiming to empower residents and the thread of paternalism you identify was similarily strong in communities. I was just reflecting that pupils can learn this sense of ‘other people make decisions for me’ at school and then carry it into their adult lives. As a result, they don’t see the need to engage in the democratic process as their opinion has never been valued. A more empowering model as you suggest would teach students they do have influence, which could then transition into active citizenship in later life. Thanks for your perspective – Nick