“If we weren’t listened to it just wouldn’t be right. It makes you feel really welcomed, because you’ve got your say.”
Year 5 pupil
Behaviour is not an issue in the school. This is a result of the incredibly positive relationships between staff and pupils and the understanding they share of rights and responsibilities.
By the time they leave the school all children are adept at expressing their opinions, talking to adults and relating to one another in a civilised, caring way.
Children show a clear affection for the school, the staff and all other pupils. The sense of ownership they feel is impressive.
To express oneself compassionately and effectively one needs to learn to listen to and work with others. Group project work from a young age teaches the skills needed.
Staff need to see themselves as role models. Leading by example is essential. If you are trying to teach children respect, you need to show them that same respect.
Set your expectations higher. It is easy to underestimate how responsible young children can be and how intelligently they can contribute.
Pupil voice does not work unless everyone shares the value of listening. So, we need to educate around rights and responsibilities for pupil voice to work.
Whilst Kirk Merrington has certain structures to listen to pupils, what is most important is the relationships between staff and pupils, which are open, friendly and mutually respectful. This is not to say that this is just a happy coincidence, the school has chosen to be this way:
There is a very strong set of values which underpins everything the school does. Central to this is that the school has to act in a way that reflects the values it is trying to teach:
“We try to teach respect therefore young people are listened to.”
Initially these values grew from what the school wanted its children to learn. It was understood that for this to happen the school would have to be based on these values too and so all its interactions would need to be on this basis. Over time the school formalised this way of working first through the Investors in Pupils scheme and then the Rights Respecting Schools Award. The latter helped the school make clear the links between rights and responsibilities. Everything the school does now is framed within the language of rights and responsibilities. Whilst it cuts across many rights and responsibilities, pupil voice is clearly linked in the school to the right of everyone to be listened to and therefore the responsibility to listen to others.
“Rights Respecting Schools isn’t the be all and end all, but it’s easy to assume that you’re doing it [involving pupils] without something like this. The children will tell us what we want to hear, they are very loyal to us. These schemes help us to understand what’s going on, to audit it.”
In a primary school the concept of rights and responsibilities can be difficult to convey so the school has come up with a mascot to help. ‘Righty Duck’ can be seen all over the school and all pupils know that wherever they see him, there are rights and responsibilities at play. For example, the school council noticeboard has a picture of ‘Righty Duck’ next to notes explaining in simple language what the school council is for and which article of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) it relates to.
So, both those who can read the explanation and those who cannot understand that there is a link between the class charters, the work they do on sustainability, the school council and so on.
Staff modelling respectful communication
There are honest, open relationships between pupils, parents and staff. The school has an open door policy in its staff room and the headteacher’s office. This is part of the headteacher’s aim to ensure that all Kirk Merrington pupils will have the confidence and self-esteem to talk to any adult. It is absolutely understood that for pupils to learn how to relate positively to one another this behaviour needs to be modelled in the relationships staff have with them.
“Schools can run on auto-pilot; we don’t want to do that, we want to understand why we’re doing it and be purposeful about it.”
This means that, for example, when the school council asks for something the answer is never ‘no’, there is always an explanation and an ‘adult discussion’ about the reasons why. This is the starting point for attempting to find a solution, rather than the end of the matter.
This culture of problem-solving starts very early in the school and is seen as an essential building-block for positive communication and teamwork as the pupils get older.
Variety of opportunities for leadership and responsibility
In the classroom every child engages in project-based, team learning that helps them build skills of listening, collaboration and leadership. Everyone then has the opportunity to take on other roles of responsibility through which they can represent others or get their own voice heard. Although it is a very small school it makes available a variety of opportunities:
- School council
- Music council
- Pupil-run snack shop
- Play leaders (run games and sessions in the playground)
- Singing leaders (teach songs on the playground)
- Pupils elected to work with architects designing the new school
About the school (adapted from Ofsted)
This smaller than average sized school, south of Durham, is attended by pupils from the immediate area and beyond. The small number of pupils in the school results in mixed key stage classes. The areas served by the school have below average indicators of socio-economic circumstances and all the pupils are of White British heritage with English as their first language. The proportion of pupils in receipt of free schools meals is below the average as is the proportion of pupils with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. The school holds several awards including Healthy Schools accreditation.
Involver conducted these case studies for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in 2011, as part of a project to encourage schools to involve their students in decision making