Why Students Aren’t Given More of a Say in EducationMarch 17, 2012
I don’t normally use my blog to reply to other blogs, but sometimes a blogpost is so wrong in so many ways that a comment isn’t enough. The latest post on Liberal Conspiracy entitled “Why aren’t students given more of a say in education?“ is such a blogpost. Debatable assumptions seem to be woven into almost every line, and so I will quote and attempt to respond to most of those lines.
Imagine a system whose entire purpose is to serve a group of people.
I actually find that fairly difficult to do. What institutions do exist only to serve a particular group of people? We may say the police exist to serve the public, but they also exist to serve the law. We may think a supermarket chain exists to serve its shareholders, but it also serves its customers. We may think the NHS exists to serve patients, but it also serves the public as a whole. The concept of “stakeholders” is often used in very woolly ways, but it is often relevant to the purpose of organisations, particularly public services. Another concept is that of a “practice”. Institutions often exist to carry out a particular practice, rather than to serve a particular group. Do you think a doctor “serves” his patients? Or does she or he practice medicine? (If you do think doctors exist to serve their patients, I’d recommend watching a few episodes of House).
Imagine that this same system excludes that group of people from holding any power.
If an organisation exists to serve people, do they actually need more power over it? Do patients need more power over hospitals? Do motorists need more power over the Highways Agency? Your answer might well be “yes” but it should be easy to see that this is a highly debatable answer. Accountability in public services is always a controversial issue and nobody would give blind approval to all forms of accountability. Plenty of political debate (for instance over elected police commissioners or the running of schools) consists of arguments over how things should be accountable.
Such is the relationship between the British Education System and its students.
Is it? Do schools exists to serve their students? I thought schools existed to educate them. This is not the same thing at all. I am not the servant of my classes. I’m a teacher, not a butler. I do not exist simply to do what they want, I am there to see that they learn. To that end they often have to do what I want. It is certainly not clear that they should have power over me. I have responsibilities to their interests, to their parents and to my managers. If I don’t have the power to make the decisions, how can I be held responsible for them? If my classes leave my lessons ignorant, it would only occasionally be an acceptable excuse to say “they didn’t want to learn”.
No school in the UK has any obligation to listen to its students.
The rules may now have changed, but until recently OFSTED expected schools to do almost exactly that and in practice this meant meant schools councils and intiatives like “Student Voice”. The Guardian had a good article on this the other day. This is looking like one of those articles that argues for more of the same by denying what is already happening.
The representative bodies which exist are rarely more than symbolic.
A moment ago, it seemed to be implied that there were no such bodies, now we have the completely different complaint that they are inadequate.
A very small number of students are allowed to express their feelings on the running of the school but there is no process for using their feedback.
Now we have yet another distinct complaint, that there is insufficient “process”? Well, this is no doubt true; this is one area where there isn’t a standard bureaucratic model to be imposed on schools. However, a call for such a model needs to be based on more than the overblown rhetoric we have heard before. This is now about bureaucracy, not democracy.
It is inconceivable that any other public service or business would entirely ignore the views of their key stakeholders. This failure to listen is to waste countless opportunities to improve.
Hang on, at the start of this article they were the masters. Now they are a “key stakeholder”? That’s not the same thing at all. And depending on how you define that term it is not inconceivable at all. Some “key stakeholders” in public services probably should be ignored to a significant degree. The police should not be consulting criminals. Prison officers should not be overly willing to consult prisoners. You can have a stake in an organisation without having any right to be listened to. (And before anybody raises it, criminals and prisoners were counter-examples not analogies. I’m not saying schools are kiddie-gaols.)
It is also entirely at odds with the way our society has come to recognize and respect the rights of children.
There’s a lot of ideological claims out there about the rights of children, it is a highly controversial area. Please don’t attribute one viewpoint to society.
Students should have the chance to feedback on the teaching they receive.
If a student went to see a teacher, out of lessons and with an opinion, would they be turned away? Legitimate concerns are not banned. That does not mean we have to spend resources trying to force opinions out of kids.
While they may not have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy, they have a knowledge that no expert has; they know what works for them.
Actually, there is a mountain of psychological evidence that we are very bad judges of how well we know or understand something. It is also highly disputed that “what works” differs that much between students.
At the end of each week, students could rate the activities that they had undertaken in class. Teachers would then be able to look through the responses and get a clear idea of the actual experience of those they teach.
All teachers assess learning. Why do we need to assess their opinions as well? If children are learning successfully, what opinion would justify changing the method? That it is only liked by those who want to learn? That it is not fun? That it requires effort? That kids don’t like it?
Some students would not take the process seriously or might base ratings on their personal opinions of that teacher rather than the merits of the activities. Yet the vast majority would respect this opportunity to have a say. Some teachers would be sceptical but most would find the information fascinating and useful.
I have experienced countless such exercises. Teachers respect it to the extent to which it matches what they want to hear. The methods are used because they cause learning, not because they are what kids want. If a child really cares about learning then they are worth listening to. If they don’t want to learn, then they aren’t. And teachers tend to judge this by how much they appreciate what is already being done to bring about learning.
Students should have input into what they study.
“Input” here is a weasel word, but it is immediately clear that there are strict limits to the value of such input. Children aren’t in school to study what they want, but to study the best of what has been thought and known. Education is meant to broaden horizons, not limit them to what students already appreciate.
Clearly there are core skills which students need to acquire, whether they wish to or not.
Yes there are, however, we should be very careful about limiting what is the “core”. If the core is too limited we are simply lowering the expectations we have for all students. Most importantly, why are there core “skills”, not core knowledge? Are there not things they should know?
Yet they could decide on how they gained these skills.
Or it could be decided by somebody with professional training and years of experience. We don’t let patients decide what medicine they should be treated with. That would be to insult doctors. Let’s not insult teachers in the same way.
In History, students could select the period they study.
They could. Hard to see why though.
The fact that they made the decision is likely to boost their engagement with the subject.
As ever, “engage” is the ultimate weasel word in education. In the above argument it appears to mean little more than “entertain”.
Students should contribute to the code of discipline that they have to abide by.
Are children only worth protecting if they have expressed the desire to be protected? If a 13 year old wants the school set up in a way that makes it easier for them to have sex with adults, would that be okay?
To many this notion seems irresponsible. Surely, if given the opportunity, students would seek to dismantle the rules that restrict them?
Some, and often the most vocal and influential, would.
It is well-established, however, that most students are content in a calm and well-structured environment. They dislike chaos and recognize that a clear system of well-enforced rules is the best way to achieve this. Students also have a very well-developed sense of fairness; even well-behaved students respond very badly to perceived injustice.
True, but that sense is often based on the expectations of the peer group and the expectations already in place.
By opening up a dialogue, school authorities would be able to gain an understanding about what is seen as unfair and then judge these concerns.
And show themselves to be more concerned about perceptions than reality.
More than anything else, it is inconsistency that undermines discipline. When one teacher enforces a rule and another doesn’t, students are left confused and frustrated. Listening to students would give a precise picture of the consistency with which rules were being applied.
The biggest issue over consistency is pressure from above not to enforce rules from managers who consider teachers who apply the rules to be at fault for having bad behaviour in their class in the first place.
Such a transferral of power would improve the service that schools provide.
Assertion without argument. I have been in schools where students had enormous power over teachers. It didn’t improve services.
As significantly, school would cease to be only a place students attend and become an institution that they own.
Another fuzzy concept. Should students “own” schools? One of the main features of ownership is that it can be dissolved or transferred. Should children really have that power? If the purpose of schooling is to educate, not entertain or serve, then the answer to this question, like so many of the other questions raised, is a clear “no”. Adults should not be ceding authority to children. This is inherent in the very notion of childhood. Professionals should not be handing their judgements over to amateurs. This is inherent in the very notion of professionalism. Schools should not abandon their educational purpose in order to cater to the whims of children. This is inherent in the notion of education.