In 2001, The Guardian launched a ground breaking competition called ‘The School I’d Like’, inviting young people to imagine their ideal school. A decade later, The Guardian relaunched the project giving a platform to children’s voices and posing questions about the reconstruction of teaching and learning for a new century.
The book by the same name ‘Children and young people’s reflections on an education for the future’ written by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor presents the material collated by The Guardian, providing a snapshot of the perception of schools in the UK.
I offer this synopsis as a renewed opportunity to reflect on contemporary English education policy and to uphold the collaborative vision of education professionals, comprising the many interpretations of the image of the capable child.
From all the ideas received, The Guardian, together with a panel of ten children, compiled a ‘children’s manifesto’ to capture the essential ingredients of the perfect school. The perfect school would be:
Active – lots of different sports and a swimming pool with slides. Playgrounds with climbing frames and treehouses where you could learn about nature.
Calm – with a chill out room, music instead of bells, a quiet place inside at playtime for drawing, reading and board games.
Comfortable – with bean bags, big enough chairs, small enough chairs, slippers and somewhere to store personal things. Cold drinks in summer and warm drinks in winter.
Creative and colourful – lots of room to make and display art and flowers in the classroom.
Expert – with teachers who don’t just read up about their subjects, but live them.
Flexible – with more time for favourite subjects and more time for art and sport.
Friendly – with kind teachers who speak softly and special members of staff who you can go and talk to.
Listening – with forums for classes to express their views. Don’t just listen, but take children’s comments seriously and make changes as a result.
Inclusive – with pupils of all achievement, ability and background learning together.
International – with food from all over the world and pupils too; with opportunities to go abroad to learn languages and about other cultures.
Outside – Fortnightly school trips, animals to look after and greenhouses to grow fruit and vegetables to eat and to sell.
Technological – ipads to read and work on, MP3 players for relaxing or to help concentrate; USB sticks to take work home.
So what do we take as being the most prominent discourses?
- plurality of voices: this fashions democracy, inclusiveness and progress.
- dialogue: a conversation based on reciprocity and accountability.
- participatory democracy: the capacity of children and young people to shape their present and their future.
- history: a reminder of different eras and perspectives and an alternative for contemporary times.
The authors devised themes which they believed seemed to arise from the data collected and which connect with current debates and discourses about education for young people. These themes are highlighted below, together with examples of the ideals described by the children and young people who participated in the competition.
- A place of comfort, safety and adventure
- Rainbow coloured walls
- Everyone’s equal, everybody’s respected and their voices are heard
- An ‘own pace room’ where you can go at your own pace
- A place with its own sort of beauty
- Art would be a huge part of the education…murals and statues around the school
- An adventure playground…because children like adventures
- The school I’d like would not be a perfect one but one in perfect surroundings
“Many of the designs suggested by pupils…signal how transparency matters to them, underlining an open and connected school and how curved lines emphasise their preference for nurturing, safe and soft environments.”
“The appearance of school grounds was also symbolic for children of the way the school valued them – a reflection of self.” (Titman 1994 “Special Places for Special People”)
Learning and knowing
- No such things as set lessons and boundaries between subjects would be freely crossed
- The curriculum should contain the need for experiences
- Children should learn and research. Figure out differences
- My ideal school would be located in three different places: underwater, underground and in space
- We will no longer be treated as herds of an identical animal waiting to be civilised before we are let loose on the world
- School would be open…integrated into the wider community…holistic
- We will have the freedom of choice and opinion…as individuals
- The school I’d like…could slow down a little occasionally
- The place must be unafraid of kids staring out of windows…I would encourage kids to look beyond the classroom, out of the classroom and see themselves doing different things.
- Give us the freedom to ask questions and do us the courtesy of helping us find answers
“Children today recognise that their learning is restricted by barriers set up against their accessing fields of knowledge held by policy-makers to be inappropriate for their age.”
The comments by the children show us the importance of a teacher creating or adapting an environment which does not fetter the natural process of learning. Learning should not be a commodity which can be amassed and measured or invested in by parents.
- Teachers should be there to help and not to organise
- Promote tolerance rather than sameness. School uniform takes away individuality and free expression
- Children should be given equal rights…treated much more qualitatively and much less quantitatively
- The reason that I say my school will and instead of my school would is because I do believe that such a school can exist
- Rules to guide us, not confine us
- It should be social, as well as an educational experience
- Every child needs help, every child can give something special
We need to avoid school as being “a space organised and controlled by adults to aid an ordered transition from childhood to adulthood.”
In their responses, children made a connection between “a visually pleasing environment and a sense of wellbeing” with many designs suggesting the sources of stress to be directly linked with the physical environment and the material world of the school. There is seemingly an enormous pressure to conform, “to fit into a system, the organisational and design features of which are rooted in an era when the needs of the diverse community of children were not taken into account.”
- School, for us, serves a purpose…we are here to learn to develop and respect ourselves by personal achievement
- I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.
- I dream of happiness and learning united
“The extensive nature of school time [was] very much to the fore in the 2001 data, and was often accompanied by critical observations and commentaries on current school organisation of the day and the week.”
“Children understand the difference between surface and deep learning, they recognise the importance of commitment, and are conscious of the relationship between motivation and learning.”
A time for change and creativity?
The authors contend that children and young people communicated strongly a sense that the potential of a rich educational experience was currently and historically limited by institutional and traditional ways of being and behaving in school environments. Children consistently show a desire for learning to be rooted in curiosity and discovery, flexibility and variety; learning through research, a theme common to the approach taken to early years education in Reggio Emilia.
“What is necessary to implement this change is a kind of leadership that recognises what is important for children and young people and for the enrichment of society in general.” We need to reconsider the purpose of the term ‘schooling’ with education being for fulfilment rather than efficiency where children no longer learn second-hand, but research for themselves. We need to reconnect with the community and seek a dynamic between the sense of a school, its environment, its rhythm and routine and try to take a holistic approach, capturing this in the languages of expression offered to children.
It is adults who still dominate the education debate, adults who make decisions and adults who implement change; children’s voices remain largely unheard. One twelve year old who participated in The Guardian’s competition back in 2001 said “I have a dream, that one day my school will be launched from paper and become a reality.” Perhaps it is now time to reignite this imagination; to renew the agenda for change by giving children the time and space to play and to become powerful learners. As part of our own learning process, we might finally allow children’s dreams to come true.