My favourite broadcast news report was compiled not by a well-funded TV crew, but by a group of middle-school pupils from Bedfordshire. I suspect it caused more embarrassment at the Department for Education than most stories. The government had just produced an expensive, computer-generated design for the latest school buildings. The DfES released it as a video. It looked fantastic: acres of plate-glass, banks of laptops and vast plant-filled atriums. And virtually no pupils.
I, then at the BBC, ran the story on the breakfast television news, using the DfES footage. I tried to balance it with commentary about the more mundane reality of most school buildings but, inevitably, pictures were more powerful than words.
Later that day, a videotape arrived. It was a counter-blast video made, without any adult prompting, by a group of irate pupils.
It was brilliantly done. Pupils pointed out the ivy growing through the science lab ceiling and the piles of disconnected computers in a storage cupboard. That was the power of the pupil voice. We should listen to it more often.
I must confess that, in the past, I have been sceptical about the concept of pupil voice. Why listen to those with so little experience?
But I was wrong. Pupils are the real consumers of schooling. They know what is going on and they recognise what works for them. This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Alder Grange community and technology college in Lancashire. As I toured the school, I was struck by the bareness of the walls. Was this evidence of a school that lacked the vitality to provide interesting wall displays?
No. It turned out there had been a deliberate decision to clear clutter. Why? Because in the classrooms it distracted the pupils from learning and in the corridors it made the space feel narrower. And who said so? The pupils.
The wisdom of consulting pupils is spreading. The Sorrell Foundation Young Design Centre has just opened an exhibition that invites pupils’ views on school design. Their ideas tend to be practical and sensible. Their most common concerns relate to issues such as unsafe toilets, unwelcoming canteen facilities and lack of social space. At Alder Grange, pupils asked why meeting areas could not have sofas and tables – “grown-up” furniture.
Nor is the pupil voice relevant only to buildings. If we are serious about wanting to teach young people about citizenship, they should be able to see it in action in schools. That means more than just asking their opinions. It also means giving pupils responsibility to implement them.
At Alder Grange, I sat in on a meeting between the school management and pupil leadership teams as they discussed how the pupil council was working. To my surprise, it has responsibility for disciplinary matters; it decides, and imposes, the scale of punishments. Surely, I asked the staff, miscreants must resent being disciplined by their peers? Apparently not – not least because the council is elected by all pupils.
There is plenty more scope for pupil voice. Take personalised learning, for example. According to a government-commissioned report last week, many schools still do not know what the phrase means. Yet I have seen pupils in Bristol helping to design a curriculum and learning style that suits them.
Of course, like adults, pupils don’t always do what they know is best for them. But would we deny adults a say in the way they work because they occasionally spend too long chatting at the water-cooler? After all, how often have you thought that you could tell management how to improve your workplace?
It is time to turn up the volume on pupil voice.