The teachers are working incredibly hard. The problem is that the pupils aren’t.” So ran the verdict of the school advisor and it always caused the same sinking feeling in my stomach as a chief education officer. The tell-tale comment, confirmed my worst fears that the school involved was in serious trouble, especially if, as was usual, it was accompanied by a despairing lament from the head: “Well what more can you expect from kids with backgrounds like these?”
Of course it immediately prompted measures of school support but you knew in your guts that the road to recovery would be long and tortuous and as likely as not involve a change of school leadership. After all if the head does not believe the pupils will achieve, very few of the staff will.
And now many years later I could kick myself for not realising that we could have headed off so many of such problems by taking a long-neglected aspect of school improvement with a seriousness it deserves – student involvement.
Somebody once remarked that you could tell primary school pupils because they are workers busy with their tasks and 6th-formers because they are clients choosing what they want to do, whereas the 11 to 16 age group are more like cars on an assembly line being passed along from lesson to lesson for a nut tightened here and a headlamp bulb fixed there. So proper student involvement is especially a secondary school issue.
I was stupid enough in those days to think that supporting school councils, advocating that they should have budgets and setting up Youth Parliaments was enough. Yet there was plenty of evidence that it could be more than that.
After all, we know that “pupils teaching other pupils” is highly effective for the deliverer and the recipient: so peer-tutoring, peer-mentoring and peer-counselling are vital ingredients of student involvement. Formal training of leaders among pupils has a long history through the Young Sports Leaders schemes and the like.
A recent visit to the Blue School in Wells and Chew Valley – two comprehensives in Somerset, however, has transformed my view of what is possible. They run a programme called Learning to Lead, involving upwards of a third of each school’s 1,000-plus pupils.
Students self-elect to one of a series of teams with intriguing titles, each of which has a clear purpose. The “bookworm team” encourages students to read, “we love science” works with staff to improve educational experience, the “chicken team” takes responsibility for the school coop, and the “green team” consists of those with a strong environmental mission.
Admittedly there were one or two obscure and idiosyncratic examples, such as the “lizard team” which seemed anxious to set up a solarium in every classroom. But the most impressive thing was the way in which they came together collectively in the school.
So well established is it in the Blue School, that they have just built an impressive sustainable, round wooden building as a student-run office centre where the teams can meet and develop their projects and meet “in the round”. Apart from self-election and being open to mixed-age membership, the other guiding principles include the important one that every activity has to be of value to the community whether that is defined as the school, the town and surrounding villages, or more widely and internationally.
In that sense all the teams are different from the normal menu of extra-curricular activities such as sport, drama and debating. Clearly it would be possible for there to be an overlap of activity with Learning to Lead teams but the difference is that teams are run by students for students in the interests of others. The impact on the wider community within which the school sits is predictably considerable.
If you add this student involvement example to the time-honoured examples of peer-counselling, buddying, mentoring and tutoring and if you extend to year 7 the primary practice of each youngster – in teams of course – having a job within the classroom to lighten the teachers’ load in order to develop a sense of continuity and responsibility among pupils, you are beginning to create a school where students have real and responsible roles.
Indeed there is hardly a task or activity within schools where students couldn’t profitably be involved as sorcerer’s apprentices – the library, ICT, subject departments and faculties as well as “house” and or “year” organisation.
This extends to teaching and learning too, not just in formative peer assessment but also in the burgeoning examples of “flipped” lessons, where pupils research a new theme on the internet and then present in a pre-planned way in lessons so that other pupils and the teacher respond and pupils move their learning from dependent (shallow) through independent (deep) to interdependent (profound) levels. It takes the pressure off marking too.
For me the multiplier effect is the Learning to Lead example in deepest Somerset: it seems to embed the practice in a way which makes it likely to last. Learning to LeadLearning to Lead is a programme enabling large numbers of students to lead in the design and implementation of projects that help transform their learning and their schools. The scheme was created in 2002, borne out of a concern for the lack of opportunity for genuine student involvement in the life of school communities.Developed by two teachers and students from the Blue School in Somerset, the aim was to involve everyone, not just the brightest and most vocal, in identifying changes needed and then enabling student-led project teams to bring them about. The students involved grew in confidence, self-esteem and ownership.The programme was gradually extended to other local schools and now 75 new schools have joined in the past three years. The expansion of Learning to Lead is being supported by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.learningtolead.co.uk CAPTION: Getting involved: Professor Sir Tim Brighouse presents Learning to Lead’s Gold Award to students at the Blue School (top).The school’s Learning to Lead students are pictured in action (middle and bottom images).