Manifesto for change
In 2009 the English Secondary Students' Association (ESSA), in conjunction with British television Channel 4, ran a competition for short films to be made by students, suggesting how schools could be changed for the better. Improvements in IT provision featured in many of the films, and there were many requests for a widening of the curriculum. Others were more fundamentally critical, identified faults in the current system, and gave examples of the damage it can do.
The entry from O-Regen College, in Waltham Forest, for example, was made by two girls who had been branded a misfits at their previous schools and actually excluded. They liked the college because 'We don't do formal in this college,' and they 'get in stuff [they] hadn't got before.' One of them says to a teacher, 'I was going through a rough patch and I got kicked out of schools and I went to a lot of places I had never been before and you helped me to get the qualifications that I needed.' The teacher refuses to take credit for this, and says, 'All I do is try to create, with you, what you want to do.'
At her previous schools no one had had time to take into account the fact that she was going through a rough patch, and the formal organisation of the schools had merely made things worse. It is significant that she was 'kicked out of schools,' not merely kicked out of one school. At O-Regen College she was interested and purposeful, but the conventional education system had completely failed her.
Students from Waingels College in Wokingham submitted an entry chorusing a request for communication. A student stands by a substantial building site within the school and relates that the school students had been consulted but no one had paid any attention to their opinions. Only the governing body knew what was going on.
The students suggest using texting, computers and video-conferencing to enable open discussion which would include teachers, parents and students. 'Everybody could be asked,' they say. 'Everybody could be heard.'
Until changes were made, they would be unable to make any positive contribution to school affairs.
Emily, from Oldfield School in Bath, makes a similar complaint more specifically. She says that students are not given the opportunity to voice their opinions freely, school councils don't effectively convey the students' ideas and opinions and that students who are not members of the school council should also be heard. She has noticed that most teachers don't put children's views forward because they don't want to challenge those in higher authority.
This last point shows a commendable sympathy for teachers who are only one step higher than their pupils in the academic hierarchy. It appears that in spite of school councils, Emily's school, like many others, is run as a dictatorship.
There are also various complaints about unfairness, for instance being told off for things you have not done, or for lateness that is not your own fault. One illustration is a dramatised scene in which a boy on a bike is stopped because he should be in school. He says that he has been suspended for 'talking back' because he had tried to explain why he had arrived late. Children are obliged to arrive punctually at school unless the school suspends them. When it has suspended them, they are not allowed to come to school at all. The message is confusing, to say the least.
The entry from Parrs Wood, Manchester, identifies the timetable as public enemy number one. The students complain that they are constantly restricted in what they do, and all the interesting things are extra-curricular. They want to know why these interesting things aren't included in the curriculum. There are plenty of things they actually want to learn about, but they have to spend all their time learning things that have been prescribed by central authority.
Another submission, which was in the form of dance, drama and dialogue, was called D-Volution lost in exams. The theme was the way exams distract you from the essential elements of a subject. 'They don't teach you the subject, they teach you how to pass the exam,' the students complain. 'You must pass the exam, you must past the exam, you must pass the exam,' they chant in an undertone. They act a scene in which a girl asks a question in class and is told, dismissively, 'You don't need to know that for the exam.'
The message of another entry, called TLC, Teaching and Learning Compromise, is that being at school involves too much stress and 'strange discipline.' The film-makers list the three points they want to make:
1. Stress is bad (for the eventual adult, as well as the child and
2. Strict discipline is not needed.
3. There must be classroom equality.
Their school experience has clearly been stressful, they have been subjected to unnecessary discipline and they have been denied equal status.
A responsible and articulate group produced an entry entitled Making Real Choices. 'We want the opportunity to become adults,' they say, 'to be given responsibility, to be allowed choices, even to make our own mistakes.' The failure of most schools to provide any chance of fulfilling these ambitions is a consequence of relying on tradition, rather than daring to try anything new.
In most schools the staff see stress as inevitable or perhaps even valuable, strict discipline as essential and classroom equality, if that means equality between teacher and student, as a recipe for disaster. It is not just the rebels against the system who disagree. The responsible children who made these films were also protesting and suggesting changes.
Most children in secondary schools have been trained to accept the system, but these film-makers show that their eagerness to learn is all too often crushed in the repressive atmosphere of their classrooms.
Several of the most urgent pleas for recognition came from schools for children with a variety of disabilities. What they have to say arouses immediate sympathy. It is more difficult to create sympathy for those who suffer only from the disadvantage of being young. Even the highly motivated, like the makers of these films, find themselves trapped in a system in which their opinions are considered to have little value.
In spite of the promotion by Channel 4, the winning films were never shown on TV.