Lack of trust
If you are not trusted there is nothing to be gained by being trustworthy.
The National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), which describes itself as the largest union representing teachers and head teachers throughout the UK, does not trust children. It issued a statement in 2007, criticising the notion of student voice in general, and in particular objecting to children being involved in interviews of staff for new posts and trained to undertake classroom observation of teachers.
The first paragraph of the statement reads, 'The original concept of the "student voice" was pioneered by Professor Jean Rudduck as the empowerment of pupils to enable them to be engaged and involved in the learning process, thus helping teachers and other members of the school workforce to raise standards and meet the needs of individual learners.' At first glance this seems acceptable enough, but why should pupils' engagement and involvement be limited to the learning process? And is the purpose of listening to the students' voices really only to help 'teachers and other members of the school workforce'? What about the students themselves?
Later the position statement asserts, 'The understanding of the balance between rights and responsibilities is . . . critical, particularly as a consideration of rights is leading some schools to a concept of the student voice which is based on a simplistic and narrow assertion about student rights.' The implication is that students have no rights. The classroom is seen as a kind of parade ground, where the demand for rights is an anomaly. What the NASUWT appears to have overlooked is that when students' voices are freely heard, they are more likely to be asking for responsibilities than rights.
In another paragraph the Union refers to strategies 'which privilege pupils in a way that undermines, disempowers and deprofessionalises teachers.' This seems a wilful misinterpretation of the intention to enable pupils and teachers to co-operate in a way that is impossible under the old system. Members of the NASUWT apparently require a position of power before they are able teach, and believe that inviting contributions from children undermines that power.
The concept of professionalism is important to the Union, which believes that teachers ought to have the same standing as doctors and lawyers. It is felt to be undermining if teachers are interviewed by children, or if those they teach are allowed to comment on their teaching.
The statement ends with the following declaration: 'Teachers understand the need to establish an appropriate, professional and personal relationship with their pupils,' we are told, 'but it is teachers who are both responsible and accountable for pupil progress and outcomes. Therefore, teachers and students should have a voice, but the last word must remain with the teacher.'
The assertion that teachers are both responsible and accountable for pupil progress and outcomes omits the contribution made by the pupils themselves. Teachers are also presumably to be considered responsible and accountable for pupil failures – or is there a hidden implication that teachers are responsible for success and pupils are responsible for failure? (Falko Peschel has drawn attention to the curious fact that if teacher-directed children fail it is thought to be the children's fault, but if self-directed children fail it is thought to be the fault of the system.)
'Teachers and students should have a voice,' says the Union, wistfully admitting that teachers too are all too often denied any voice in the running of their schools, the curriculum they teach or the conduct of their classrooms. The current hierarchy has a damaging effect on the staff as well as the students.
If 'the last word must remain with the teacher,' this means children must be trained to submit to authority rather than to reason.
Chris Keates, the General Secretary of the NASUWT, was on the BBC Today programme on April 3rd 2010. She told of one teacher who was interviewed by children had been asked to sing her favourite song and another had been asked to say what talent he would offer if he appeared on Britain's Got Talent. Children, Chris Keates insisted, should not have the power to influence the careers of trained teachers twice their age.
Even if it is true that one or two children had asked what might be irrelevant questions at an interview, that is no justification for denying all children the right to interview teachers. The teachers are going to have more influence on their lives than on the lives of any of the school management.
The position statement and this interview reveal a mistrustful and condescending attitude to children. Whenever doubting teachers bring themselves to listen seriously to children, they are astonished and delighted by their honest, thoughtful and articulate voicing of significant concerns. In schools where children assess lessons, most teachers find their reports helpful and encouraging. Children who interview staff for jobs actually experience the way they relate to young people. They want to be sure that their school will employ someone who will be able to teach them well. CVs and interviews with a head-teacher cannot reveal this essential information.
There is no need to be afraid that if students are given power, they will make their schools worse; their principal objective will be to make them better. Disruptive behaviour in the classroom is not just the consequence of poor discipline, it is a natural reaction from young people who are forced to face an inappropriate or ill-taught curriculum which simply does not interest them. If they are given the opportunity to improve the situation they will take it seriously, as they did, for example, at Highfield school in Plymouth when Lorna Farrington took over as head teacher in 1994. Within two years extreme disorder had been replaced by a purposeful tranquillity.
When children have no voice, they have to choose between being rebellious and being submissive. Neither is desirable.