Education: Why not give pupils a say?

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EVERYONE KNOWS the difference between a good and a bad teacher, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, told a conference recently. "People say it's difficult to make judgements about whether there are good teachers. That's nonsense. Everyone who has been through school knows perfectly well who is a good teacher."

Well... up to a point. A Green Paper on the future of the teaching profession, to be published today, is unlikely to make it sound that simple. Indeed, there is talk of a "technical working group" to decide just how teachers' classroom performance should be measured and some of the ideas in circulation sound about as straightforward as Fermat's last theorem.

How is a teacher's worth to be determined? Headteachers will certainly have a say, backed no doubt by their heads of department. And their opinions will probably be checked either by local authority inspectors or private consultants. Yet the people with most to gain or lose by teachers' performance, and who really should have a say, are the pupils.

They are the true consumers of education. They are the only people who experience teaching hour-to-hour, day-to-day; the only people from who teachers cannot hide.

A bad teacher can put on a good performance for a couple of days while inspectors are visiting. An ingratiating one may drink with the head in the pub, or volunteer to run the volleyball club after school. Teachers' main complaint about the present system of merit awards is that they tend to go to the headteacher's pets.

Pupils know better, as the comments about boredom at school on these pages graphically illustrate. Even primary school children have a surprisingly clear view of what makes a good teacher.

They understand that discipline, the ability to motivate pupils, and the skill of moving on children of different abilities at a brisk pace are all vital ingredients. Most parents, most nights, are told that Mr Shambles can't keep order, Miss Woolly can't explain fractions, or Mrs Drone is just plain boring.

Some pupils go further. They can analyse which teachers use methods which work, and which lack the ability to vary their teaching enough to keep their pupils' attention. A group of bright 10-year-olds once explained to me that they were fed up with a teacher who stood at the front of the class talking at them, and repeating everything four times, instead of letting them get on with their projects and their research (= too much whole class teaching in inspector and headteacher jargon).

An 11-year-old who had just moved schools said how glad he was not to have to do "investigations" in maths without any guidance in advance. He much preferred being told things by his teacher, without having to work everything out for himself (= too much child-centred learning in inspector and headteacher jargon.)

How would pupils be consulted? At present, inspectors visiting a school ask to see samples of work from pupils of different ability. They could also ask a random sample of the brightest, the average and the below average what they think of their teachers.

Teachers may object that some pupils would try to settle old scores, that they know nothing about the finer points of teaching. Pupils' opinions would not, of course, be the only basis on which performance-related pay awards were decided, but they would supply a useful corrective to the adult view of the profession which can be so misleading.

The Government should take Mr Blunkett at his word. Everyone pupil who goes through school has some good ideas of what really makes a good teacher.