Classroom Democracy

A version of this post was published on Liberal Conspiracy.

A combative response to this piece can be found at Scenes from the Battleground.

Imagine a system whose entire purpose is to serve a group of people. Imagine that this same system excludes that group of people from holding any power. Such is the relationship between the British Education System and its students.

No school in the UK has any obligation to listen to its students. The representative bodies which exist are rarely more than symbolic. A very small number of students are allowed to express their feelings on the running of the school but there is no process for using their feedback. The purpose is primarily to reward these students' good performance with an honorary title (prefect, monitor etc.) and give them extra material for university applications. Student power is not the aim.

It is inconceivable that any other public service or business would entirely ignore the views of their key stakeholders. This failure to listen is to waste countless opportunities to improve. It is also entirely at odds with the way our society has come to recognize and respect the rights of children. Michael Gove talks about enabling children to be “the authors of their own life story.” For that to be the case, they need a degree of influence over the place where that story begins.

Students should have the chance to feedback on the teaching they receive. While they may not have an in-depth understanding of pedagogy, they have a knowledge that no expert has; they know what works for them. At the end of each week, students could rate the activities that they had undertaken in class. Teachers would then be able to look through the responses and get a clear idea of the actual experience of those they teach. Some students would not take the process seriously or might base ratings on their personal opinions of that teacher rather than the merits of the activities. Yet the vast majority would respect this opportunity to have a say. Some teachers would be sceptical but most would find the information fascinating and useful.

Students should have input into what they study. Clearly there are core skills which students need to acquire, whether they wish to or not. Yet they could decide on how they gained these skills. In English, why not give students a vote on the texts that they are to study? Give them a brief introduction to each and then allow them to make the choice. In History, students could select the period they study. The fact that they made the decision is likely to boost their engagement with the subject.

Students should contribute to the code of discipline that they have to abide by. To many this notion seems irresponsible. Surely, if given the opportunity, students would seek to dismantle the rules that restrict them? It is well-established, however, that most students are content in a calm and well-structured environment. They dislike chaos and recognize that a clear system of well-enforced rules is the best way to achieve this. Students also have a very well-developed sense of fairness; even well-behaved students respond very badly to perceived injustice. By opening up a dialogue, school authorities would be able to gain an understanding about what is seen as unfair and then judge these concerns. More than anything else, it is inconsistency that undermines discipline. When one teacher enforces a rule and another doesn't, students are left confused and frustrated. Listening to students would give a precise picture of the consistency with which rules were being applied.

Such a transferral of power would improve the service that schools provide. As significantly, school would cease to be only a place students attend and become an institution that they own.