THE GUARDIAN - 6TH JUNE 2006
From the government to the classroom, all agree that children should have a say. But who is really listening?
Every Tuesday morning, a small primary school in the Hertfordshire suburbs gets ready. Children swap classrooms, shuffling themselves into nine mixed-age "circle groups", Wroxham school's weekly children's forum. "Everyone gets a say," says Jenny, 11, holding hands with a five-year-old as she guides him to his place.
On the agenda today: fundraising ("Spray people's hair pink!"), the annual year 6 duck race and, most important, end-of-term reports. This year, the children will write their own before the teacher adds comments. A risk, perhaps, but the school is in confident mood. Ofsted has just judged it "outstanding" - a remarkable turnaround for a primary that was languishing in special measures three years ago.
"Wroxham is different. It lifts your heart up," says Non Worrall, a researcher studying the school ethos. The majority of schools these days are taking note of pupil voice and choice, she says, "but here it's increasingly at the heart of every activity". Choice extends to the children's work - there is no grouping by ability. Children choose from the levels of work the teacher offers. "You'd think that some of us would choose the easy way out, but we don't. We do what's best for us," says Jenny.
But this is no Summerhill. Wroxham practices this philosophy within the mainstream agenda, with formal lessons, discrete subjects and inevitable Sats papers.
The children choose their own learning partners each week, and are taught the language of self-evaluation. Older classes regularly mark their own or their partners' work and keep self-assessment books, a private dialogue with their teacher about their learning. Older buddies help younger children to write their reports, and the school even has its own radio station, with pupils writing plays, stories, adverts and jingles.
The story of Wroxham's success is important right now, because it comes at a time when the government is promoting a multitude of initiatives designed to rekindle young people's sense of engagement. Schools are the obvious place to start. Citizenship is taught as a subject in its own right, and Every Child Matters legislation now requires schools to provide opportunities for pupils to make a "positive contribution".
But there are other, more pragmatic, reasons for pursuing the pupil participation agenda. Organisations such as School Councils UK, the English Secondary Students' Association and the Carnegie UK Trust have been lobbying on the issue for some time, but there has been a recent surge in interest from the educational authorities. The Department for Education and Skills is funding research into best practice in school councils. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is reviewing the curriculum and is expected to increase the emphasis on pupil participation. Ofsted has incorporated the pupil's voice into its revised inspection framework.
So why this new-found enthusiasm? There is growing evidence that schools with good pupil participation get better results, and Wroxham is a case in point. Its Sats results are in the top 5% nationwide for value-added.
In Jo Smith's year 5 classroom, the children are getting ready for the fundraiser. The room is bubbling: pairs of children are designing posters on computers; a boy is drawing the playground to scale to map the position of the stalls. One group is making jewellery, another producing magazines to sell on the day. All 30 children are engrossed. "I'm not afraid of coming off timetable," says Smith. She knows that motivated children want to learn and do well. "That's half the battle."
The headteacher, Alison Peacock, is understandably proud of what the school has achieved. "This is another way of raising standards that can work," she says. Schools cannot be improved simply from the top down, she adds: "It's more complex than that - it's a two-way process. Our children are actively involved in all aspects of their school life and have a very real role to play in their learning."
In 2003, the school had fallen on hard times. Morale was low and the teachers' lack of self-belief was rubbing off on the children. Peacock's first step was to instigate learning review days in which year 6 pupils discussed with their teacher and parents how they thought they were getting on, what they felt were their strengths and in what areas they needed extra support. The idea was to place children at the centre of a dialogue about their learning. Children are explicitly taught to think for themselves and given the strategies to learn independently.
When Ofsted arrived at Wroxham this year, it did not take the inspectors long to realise the school had something special. The lead inspector said he wished he could bottle the ethos, and it's certainly true that the self-belief of the children acts as a powerful antidote to adult cynicism. But Wroxham is a small suburban primary. To what extent is it possible to translate the model for use in other schools?
Jessica Gold, director of School Councils UK, has just celebrated the 2,000th school to sign up to the network, which shares good practice. She estimates that around 90% of secondary and 65%-75% of primary schools have a school council. At best, these encourage children's self-belief and give them confidence; pupils learn that their opinion matters and feel more in control of their learning and school environment. At worst, school councils are tokenistic, or the elected members are simply the most articulate children from each class (Wroxham's circle groups involve the whole school).
There are many examples of innovative practice in other schools. In some, pupils are trained in research techniques and look into issues around school development. In others, students sit on the governing body. There are student bodies that work with teachers on behavioural issues or are involved in the monitoring of teaching and learning.
But too often, barriers to real pupil participation persist. "There's got to be the belief from senior management that the school can only be the best it can be if students are involved in the decision-making process," says Gold. She has seen teachers reluctant to step back and let children take the lead: "It makes them feel insecure."
For Peacock, the main barriers are fear and trust: you can't develop a participative culture if you don't trust the respondents or have already made up your mind. This can offer a false appearance of choice, as adults ask questions and collect greater volumes of data from children without truly listening and understanding the value of the process.
"I worry that we're going to disillusion a whole generation of children if we're not careful," she says. "Young people will see a model of democracy that says, 'I'm asked for my opinion, someone listens to me, but they don't act on it.' Going back and giving feedback is the crucial next step."