The wonderful BBC programme on family life – “Outnumbered” – this week gave us a particularly brilliant set of scenes featuring the head teacher of the secondary school that daughter Karen attends, and the young girl herself.
If you’ve missed this most recent episode of Outnumbered then do try to catch it as soon as possible.
For those who don’t know the programme, Karen, superbly portrayed by Ramona Marquez, is the strong-willed youngest child in the family who has recently transferred to a single-sex secondary school, where her slight quirkiness isn’t fully appreciated by either teachers or peers. She’s become a little sullen and withdrawn.
These scenes clearly demonstrate the harsh reality of how pupil voice or participation can be largely ignored by a school’s “adult” leaders and managers. Thankfully, there are many examples of schools where the notion of young people having a say in the decision-making process is real and acted upon.
Head teacher: So, Karen Brockman, I’ve heard about you, especially in the weekly staff meetings.
Now then, I understand you’ve been having a bit of difficulty adapting to secondary school, and that’s not unusual. Different children react in different ways but I have to say in my 19 years as a head, this is the first time I’ve had one that’s written a formal letter of complaint – to the governors. Do your parents know you’ve written this?
Karen: No I don’t usually involve them in my school stuff. They just panic.
HT: Well Karen, I must congratulate you on your views of the school’s shortcomings. You’ve certainly saved Ofsted the bother of a visit. I particularly like this very helpful list of the rules you think are lame. I wonder if you’d be kind enough to talk me through your findings. Read it to me. Go on.
K: Number 1 – Staff Defects . . . .
Ouch! The headteacher is clearly riled by the wit and audacity of this young woman. How different it might have been if she’d applauded her initiative and passion. As any visitor to schools knows, young people can tell you a great deal about the place.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to think that Ofsted would welcome the views of young people in their inspections too; views that are not synthesised with a “one-size fits all” questionnaire. One suspects that those who are the recipients of school policy and practice on a day-to-day level have an insight into school life that a two day inspection couldn’t possibly capture.
K: 13: The kitchen staff can get very rude if you ask them when they last washed their hands.
HT: Shall we take the remaining twelve points as read? We don’t want your little voice getting tired do we?
What was your primary school like Karen? Was it small – small and friendly?
K: Quite small, yes.
HT: And I bet you got lots of gold stars didn’t you, because at primary schools they dish out gold stars for…. well, for breathing really. But my job at this school is to gradually introduce children into the adult world. So here we get judged on performance. How do you feel you’ve been performing Karen?
K: I think my performance could improve in some areas (HT That’s good) but I do think some teachers have been under-marking me.
HT: Oh yes, point number 24.
The patronising smile and the tilt of the head from actress Rebecca Front whilst she bitterly spat out her sarcastic criticism was hysterical, yet the enjoyment was marginally lost with the recollection of seeing how some in the profession have belittled young people in the past, should they dare to voice an opinion.
We’re not suggesting that all secondary headteachers have this jaundiced view of primary schools, but the best comedy comes from the subtle elements of truth.
Primary heads simply pat children on the back, do all the fluffy things that you might see in an episode of Blue Peter and have children sitting on a mat all day, playing. Once they get to secondary school, we have to put them in their place, get them prepared for jobs and think about performance, performance, performance.
Yes, it’s a comical image.
What is more disturbing is Karen’s immediate compliance when the head teacher asks her how she’s performing. Remember, this young woman has been well-trained. She knows what it’s all about, this schooling, and she plays the game beautifully by acknowledging her performance could improve in some areas. Glorious Ofsted-speak.
HT: Sorry to abandon you Karen, a bit of an issue over whether someone can throw a javelin wearing a niqhab. Perhaps you’d like to mention that in your next missive to the governors. Biscuit? Garibaldi’s!
Tell me Karen, do you like Roald Dahl?
HT: Have you read much Roald Dahl?
K: When I was I younger, yes?
HT: And which was your favourite? Was it Matilda? I bet it was!
K: Yes, it was.
HT: Yes. Matilda, a very special little girl who refuses to buckle under and so defeats all those stupid grown-ups. It’s a great story. Shall I tell you something Karen, I’d ban Roald Dahl. He’s probably ruined more children’s lives than polio. Ruined them with the idea that all adults are stupid and can routinely be outwitted by small children and the occasional fox. More biccies?
Wonderful lines about Roald Dahl! That man has “ruined” children with his vivid imagination that has triggered further imagination in our children. That man, who wrote about the sensibility and sensitivity of children in an adult world. Naughty person!
HT: You see you’re a kid and we’re adults. We outrank you!
We’re stronger than you. We know more stuff than you and we can reach things you can’t. I guess we may sometimes come up with some stupid rules but nonetheless, “them’s” the rules.
K: Not all of the grownups in Matilda were stupid. Her form tutor Miss Honey was nice. She let Matilda go and live with her.
HT: In the real world, dear, Miss Honey would be sacked for inappropriate behaviour. Now if you like reading, I recommend this.
K: “Lord of the Flies”
HT: Yep, that’s what really happens when children get to make rules. Corpses everywhere. So Karen Brockman, what are we going to do about your little complaint?
Fortunately, what really happens when children get to “make the rules” is that they frequently come up with sensible, positive rules that they feel ownership of and are therefore more compliant. It makes for a contented place where learning happens in harmony. Most of the time. It’s a classic example of doing with not doing to. It works.
HT: So Karen after careful consideration, I’ve decided I’m going to file your little tome. Actually could you file it for me?
K: Where, Mrs Reynard?
HT: In the green circular filing cabinet by your feet.
I bet you win all the arguments at home don’t you? Of course you do, because they’re family. They’re your prisoners. You can grind them down day after day but I’m not your prisoner am I Karen?
K: No Mrs Reynard
HT: To me, you’re just one child out of several hundred. You see Karen, everybody’s unique but nobody’s special. That’s the real world and the real world isn’t going to change so you are going to have to. Ok?
K: Ok. All I needed was someone to explain it to me.
HT: I sense the emergence of a team player. Do you know Karen, I once knew a little girl like you.
A long, long time ago. She was clever. She had lots of opinions which she loved to share. She thought she was the centre of the universe and she didn’t think the rules should apply to her. And do you know what happened to that strong willed little girl?
K: Did she become a headteacher?
HT: No she got expelled. She’s in prison now. It turns out the rules did apply to her after all. Bye bye Karen. Enjoy the book.
Bye bye Karen. Off you go! Conform! You’re not special. You’re not even unique. You’re just a tiny little cog in this wheel of performance. You’re a statistic and we’ll make sure you stop thinking and use that obvious talent of yours to pass your GCSEs. And we’ll make sure you never have the nerve to be innovative enough to send a complaint to the governors again! You can’t change the world so just step into line, keep your mouth closed and your mind with it.
A wonderful performance! Wonderful writing too.
Yes, this is fiction, but we really do wonder how many children and young people feel like Karen right now. She had the door of the headteacher’s office firmly closed as she left. Job done. Another child and her views dismissed.
Fortunately, as we said, there are many schools that embrace the opinions of their pupils. There are many schools where the adults don’t see themselves as outranking the children. There are many that find a way to be inclusive, to enable children and young people to have an opinion and then actually act on that opinion.
We’ll look into this real world of participation in later posts.