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 She’s become a little sullen and withdrawn.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.
Was Karen’s meeting with here headmistress based on real life?
Absolutely love the challenge this programme presents to the so called standard put on people’s conception of what is normal. It also challenges the concept of the difference between what is normal, rebellious, defiant or just confounding . I have 7 children with ADHD/ Autism as I recognise these children in myself that was seriously misunderstood all through my life and didn’t see it as anything other than normal. I only wish that others would broaden their perception on what is normal v standard and realise that society is robbing itself of the many benefits of not including and/or broadening the inclusion of the acceptable perceived norm. Difference is not about us and them or even excepting the us and them. Genius isn’t about IQ or EQ but uniqueness and uniqueness is not so much about individuality as it is about accepting rather than showing off how open minded we all are in accepting disability and disadvantage. Disadvantage only exists because we forgot to include everyone’s worth when building our societies. It is not so much about others disabilities as our lack of understanding and insight. Namely ignorance. Most our ignorance is because we perceive from the outside what is going on in the inside rather than just simply ask! But plz ignore if you don’t agree.x
Thank you for your lengthy response. It’s appreciated and we only wish more shared your astute views. Apologies for the delay in responding. We think there’s more than EQ too- six intelligences that all combine to make us emotionally intelligent. We welcome your thoughts on this.mmore info on our website, http://www.3diassociates.com
I’m afraid the above analysis of that wonderful and superbly acted scene from Outnumbered is so much claptrap. It savours of the modern, airy-fairy, post-war educational ‘consensus’ which has been so damaging to the state school system and to our childrens’ education. The UK educational establishment is loaded with people who are convinced that they know best, based on little but their own misguided instincts, forcing their unproven theories onto schools and children. Of course childrens’ views should be listened to, in schools and elsewhere. But there’ a difference between listening and giving them credence as a matter of course. Outnumbered is a satire on modern parenting, and on the folly of failing to provide children with proper boundaries, and to prepare them adequately for the rough, tough world of work and adulthood. Rebecca Front’s character was a cleverly introduced antidote that the scriptwriters put into one of the final episodes.
“The UK educational establishment” is an interesting concept. It’s one that is particularly favoured and used by reactionary commentators in our most reactionary newspapers. Apparently Mr Gove calls this “establishment” The Blob.
Every profession is “loaded” with professionals who hold strong opinions based on hard-won day to day experience of working within their profession. Are you by any chance a professional educator? Whether you are or not we respect your right to have an opinion about education and schools, and we won’t insult you by calling it claptrap.
As a matter of fact there has never been a post-war consensus about education in the UK. Within the system there has always been a wide variety of opinions about schools, pedagogy, teaching, learning and how to meet the developmental needs of children from three to eighteen. We might well ask how you have arrived at your opinions about “misguided instincts” and “unproven theories”, and whether your research has led you to believe that you “know best”.
We agree with you that there’s a difference between listening to students’ opinions and “giving them credence as a matter of course”. At no point have we suggested that this should happen. We would never give anyone’s opinion credence as a matter of course. “Having a say in the decision-making process” is precisely that – all shades of opinion should be listened to with respect and with proper consideration.
Frustration and resentment stem from not having one’s opinions listened to (or read) properly and attentively. We should always do our best not to belittle or patronise those we disagree with. Where a school’s teachers and managers disagree with the opinions of students then they should take some time to explain properly why they disagree. Throwing someone’s considered opinions into a waste paper bin is a disgraceful way of responding to those you are trying to support, educate and enlighten, and those whom you are supposed to be helping to become more engaged, more assertive and more motivated.
Bullying takes many forms. Treating someone with contempt, abusing and misrepresenting their opinions, and using abusive language to describe their sincere efforts to express their opinions are all particular forms of aggression and bullying. Need we say more?
It seems you approve of the actions and words of the ‘cleverly introduced antidote’ – the headteacher. Unless you have evidence to the contrary then our assumption will continue to be that it’s the headteacher’s contemptuous and belittling attitude that’s being satirised in this programme. The sympathy of most viewers will be with a young person who is guilty of no crime or misdemeanor and yet is treated cynically, sarcastically and abysmally by a cold and spiteful adult who is supposed to be responsible for her wellbeing.
Why are most of the tweets on this subject in favor of he headteacher?