A piece of pupils' minds

Teachers at a Liverpool school learnt a lesson or two when their own students became class inspectors. Maureen O'Connor reports
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The Independent Online
If you want to discover what is going on in classrooms, the most obvious way to find out is to ask the students. In higher and further education that is becoming commonplace. In schools, it is an idea which tends to make teachers very defensive indeed, as Philip Freeman, head of music at Shorefields Community School, found out the hard way.

Shorefields is the last surviving inner-city school in Liverpool, serving multi-racial Toxteth. The neighbourhood and the school had suffered all the problems and notoriety they could cope with when Phil McNulty took over as head two and a half years ago with the declared intention of pulling the institution up by its boot-straps.

This academic year the intake has gone up for the first time in years; students are in uniform and do not go out to overwhelm the neighbourhood during school breaks any more.The community and parents are supportive and there are encouraging signs that teaching and learning are beginning to improve, with exam results 100 per cent up last summer from a very low base.

It is, Mr McNulty says, just a beginning but the school is now committed to hard work, achievement, respectability and personal fulfilment for its pupils, whatever their ability or background.

One small part of his school improvement strategy was to encourage Philip Freeman to launch a small-scale research project that put a group of 15- year-old volunteers into classes to observe what went on. Not surprisingly, teacher suspicion and pupil antagonism were profound until the whole school was reassured that the exercise would be strictly anonymous.

The results were illuminating, as one minute by minute account shows:

A Year 9 class, being taken by a supply teacher, was given this succinct commentary:

Other reports comment on perceived teacher unfairness, shouting and unhelpfulness.

By no means all the class reports were negative but there were enough descriptions of uncontrolled behaviour to allow Philip Freeman to draw some conclusions, not least that boys were behaving much worse than girls in class and that substitute teachers were being given a particularly hard time.

The project backed its classroom observation with a questionnaire, which asked the whole school to comment on perceptions of classroom control, fairness, behaviour, the size of classes, the enjoyment of lessons and whose responsibility it was to make sure that lessons were enjoyable.

Most pupils reckoned the great majority of teachers had good classroom control. However, more than half felt they were treated fairly only "sometimes, rarely or never", and almost three-quarters said classes were unreasonably large.

Student behaviour came in for substantial criticism from students themselves, and less than a quarter of pupils found lessons always or generally enjoyable, although a majority conceded it was partly the pupils' responsibility to make them so.

Phil McNulty accepts that he and his senior management team learnt from the exercise. "We weren't aware that substitute teachers were causing particular problems. There was a lot of staff illness and people away on courses. It's our responsibility to cut down on those sort of interruptions, which is what we have done this term."

The Shorefields students themselves were convinced their research had brought benefits. They reported their results to an international education conference last autumn. They have also set up a school forum, proposed a counselling system to help first-year children to settle in, and generally feel that voicing students' views will lead to greater understanding between staff and students. They also hope their views on teaching styles - they want less dictation and more activities - might be listened to.

Philip Freeman confirms that the research project is bearing fruit. This term the results of the project are being used as a basis for in-service staff training. "The students' perceptions of what's going on are helpful. I put myself through the observation process, too. I have worked at Shorefields for 20 years and I think if you want to improve you have to be honest with yourself. The children can help to identify areas which are not working very well."

10.20 Class noisy. Teacher ignored.

10.22 Class quiet. Teacher giving lecture. Boy with cotton tip up his nose. Class noisy again.

10.24 Class quiet. Teacher giving lecture. Warns class to shut up. Girl told to empty mouth. She does not.

10.26 Lesson finally commences (after 10 minutes). Boy told off.

10.32 Class like a zoo. A few people running around. Watch disappears. Argument with teacher.