Please Sir, we have opinions, too

A subversive idea: ask pupils what they really think about school. A new book does just that, says Maureen O'Connor
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The Independent Online
Most schools only a few years ago would have considered that asking pupils what they thought was slightly subversive. The notion that children are in school to do what teachers decide is deep-seated. Students' opinions, openly expressed, can still be seen as the first step to revolution.

Academics researching ways to improve schools increasingly disagree. They want to know what pupils think about their day-to-day experience:homework, exams, teachers and school social life.

What do students think works best for them? What do they get out of lessons? How helpful do they find their homework, and how do they cope with the increasing pressure for success in tests and examinations? Answers to these questions, say researchers, can be invaluable for improving the quality of schools and raising standards.

A new book called School Improvement - What Can Pupils Tell Us? from a team of academics who have interviewed more than 900 secondary school students over the past four years throws new light on what young people really think about their schools, and some of it makes uncomfortable reading.

Taking the fashionable question of homework - how often, how much and its value - there is a chasm between what schools hope to achieve by setting it and students' attitudes towards doing it. And if schools hope that it can provide a link between home and school to promote children's work, then there are difficulties there, too.

Boys, it appears, are particularly unimpressed with what they see as an intrusion into their free time. As one 15-year-old boy at a school in East Anglia put it: "You get too much. You're at school and then you get homework and you stay up ages and you've got no time for yourself. Then you moan about having too much homework and then your family moans at you ... and you start getting behind and the teachers give you detentions."

This was a school where most of the boys claimed to spend as little time as possible on their homework, some opting out altogether early in their secondary school careers. Even among 9- to 13-year-olds, more than a third of boys said they would rather go out than stay in to do their homework. At secondary level as a whole, 42 per cent agreed. Girls were more conscientious. According to their parents, they often spent too long on their work.

Homework was one of the factors that seemed to accentuate the considerable stress that the researchers uncovered among secondary pupils of both sexes as public examinations approached. There have been a lot of complaints from teachers that they have been over-burdened by school reforms. Far less has been heard from pupils, like this girl about to do her GCSE exams: "The only time I see my friends out of school is Friday night ... basically, I have no life and I often think there is no point in carrying on because life is so boring ... I'm not too worried about doing my exams, but the amount of work involved now is too much and I'm finding it hard to cope."

Life at examination time is particularly hard for students who carry responsibilities at home. The conflict for them is not between a social life and schoolwork, but between the family and school. "When I get home I do the washing, cook the dinner, sit down for 10 minutes on my homework. Then it's dinner out of the oven, serve it up. My dad comes in from work and that's it. It's gone - it's just housework - it's all I do."

Professor Jean Ruddock, of Homerton College, Cambridge, is one of the editors of School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us? In her introduction, she writes: "It is important if we want to improve schools to ask young people what makes learning difficult for them, what increases their motivation and what makes some opt for a 'minimum risk, minimum effort' position."

The interviews indicate that most young people want to succeed at school and want to be in an environment that makes success possible. They know what the consequences will be if they fail, and by the age of 16 they often regret wasted opportunities. As one interviewee put it: "I missed loads of school, which was my own fault, and I'm suffering for it now. I thought, oh, it doesn't matter, I can make up the work, but I didn't."

The interviews also reveal problems over which schools could take some remedial action. They could pay more attention to Year 8, the 13-plus year, which the researchers say lacks a clear focus and offers little motivation for children in many schools. They could do more work with children who fail to see the long-term importance of their schoolwork, and talk more clearly about strategies, for instance, on note-taking and revision, for coping with what has to be done. And they could make specific provision for children who have missed work - for whatever reason.

On the contentious subject of homework, about which such a high proportion of students seem to have negative feelings, they could accept that young people do have a right and a need for some time of their own, while making it easier for students who find working at home difficult to have access to facilities at school for quiet after-school study. "The structures of secondary schooling offer less responsibility and autonomy than many young people are used to in their lives outside school," Professor Ruddock argues.

Listening to pupils' opinions on why they believe they fail to learn could offer useful alternative starting points for school improvement.

'School Improvement - What Can Pupils Tell Us?' is edited by Jean Ruddock, Roland Chaplain and Gwen Wallace, and published by David Fulton at pounds 13.99.