Book review: Inspiring Schools: Taking up the Challenge of Pupil Participation
Professor Lynn Davies, Dr Christopher Williams and Hiromi Yamashita with Ko Man-Hing
Inspiring Schools is a set of three publications, subtitled Impacts and Outcomes , A Literature Review and Case Studies for Change . They were written by a team from Birmingham University and commissioned by the Carnegie Young People Initiative and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
The overall tone is indeed inspiring and some of the examples of participation are astonishing and delightful, but the literature review (published on the web at www.carnegie-youth.org.uk) reveals how small the changes are in many schools. At a specialist school for citizenship, for instance, the most important thing that has happened is that a GCSE Citizenship Studies course has been introduced, and all students in Years 10 and 11 are now given a weekly one-hour Citizenship Studies lesson.
There are also problems of teacher attitudes and pupil fears. Some teachers see pupil participation as an interruption of a school's real purpose, which is considered to be teaching, learning and enabling children to gain qualifications. Others cherish their authority and believe that giving children a say would undermine it. Children are aware of this; one study of three schools establishing councils for the first time reports that students from all three schools expected to run into trouble with the teaching staff or the management.
Even in a school with no staff room, shared toilets, first names and an emphasis on 'fraternity' between staff and students, researchers found that dissent was suppressed, and there was passivity rather than truly participatory democracy.
Case Studies for Change, the third part of the study, is a report on seven different schools that have made changes. The first is The Four Dwellings High School, a specialist science college in Birmingham, which has a school council which meets twice a term, 'teaching and learning discussion groups' which also meet twice a term, and Youth Marshalls, who seem to be an updated version of prefects, trained in mediation techniques. The minutes of a year 8 discussion group include the percentage of lessons perceived as interesting by each of the twelve students present: two put it at 5%, and no one put it at higher than 50%. There were unfortunately no suggestions as to how lessons could be made more interesting, but plenty of ideas about improving classroom behaviour by refining the system of punishments and rewards.
St. Joseph's RC Comprehensive School in South Tyneside, on the other hand, has welcomed student participation to the extent of allowing a survey of homework which revealed that too much homework was set, teachers did not stick to the official homework timetable and often did not mark homework at all, and that the homework set was often irrelevant. This review was welcomed and the school has changed its homework policies.
Ashley School is a community special school near Liverpool, with 124 students on roll, all with statements of Special Educational Needs, including pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, ADHD and other disorders. All pupils are involved in school decision-making, regardless of their ability, and they enjoy this and do not need any systems of rewards and punishments. Each form has a weekly meeting, which sends a representative to the School Council. Most students are also members of one of the school committees, which meet with a teaching assistant as secretary and one member of staff present. One of the committees deals with the actual school curriculum, but the most unusual feature of all is a dedicated meeting room with hi-tech screens and closed circuit cameras enabling all the school to watch. The room is never used by adults, although staff may occasionally be invited in.
The book contains descriptions of many other ways of empowering students or involving them in community activities outside their schools. Most could well be replicated elsewhere.
Impacts and Outcomes is an assessment of what emerged from the seven case studies and the literature review. It is extremely positive, and is given more weight by the fact that the report team did not start with the assumption that all pupil participation would necessarily be beneficial. In their final overview they state, 'We have not come across a single study where a school or college has gone back on student involvement and actively decided that it is not wanted. The worst that happens is that some of it dies because an enthusiastic teacher leaves or a school council is not seen as particularly effective. Mostly, however participation in decision-making starts a process going which starts to generate a chain of benefits.' Among these benefits are happiness, self-esteem, communication skills and a better staff-student relationship. Although there is no definite link between participation and improved academic standards, the report states unequivocally that nowhere does academic achievement suffer as a result of participatory activities. It avoids pointing out that happiness, self-esteem and so on are more important than A stars in GCSE, but gives examples of schools where you can have both.
Inspiring Schools is a cunningly ambiguous title. At first it seems merely to suggest that the report is describing schools that are inspiring in themselves, but by the time you have finished it, it seems to have set itself the task of inspiring other schools to imitate them. However, they do not underestimate the difficulty of doing so.
'One sad reflection from reading many of the studies,' they say, 'is how participation is actually not routine in so many schools, how these "outcomes" do not derive from normal school practice. What sort of school is it when the school council proudly announce that thanks to their work, pupils are now allowed to wear hats and jumpers in the playground? Why is it that pupils say that from some participatory initiative they now have gained confidence in speaking? What in their schooling had eroded or at least not provided that confidence before? Why is it so novel for a pupil to tell a teacher about how their teaching impacts on them, when pupils have up to 13 years of being on the receiving end and have a mass of cumulative experience? Why is it only in community work or mini-enterprises that pupils say they learn "teamwork", when, again, they have been in groups of 30 all their school lives? The small "victories" from participatory activities point up how far we have to go before formal schooling truly meets the needs of children and young people.'
Nevertheless, the small victories described in these books may well inspire other schools to try similar methods, and their carefully documented success is a welcome resource for anyone who is trying to argue for their introduction.