The young teaching the young
The young teaching the young
Quite an interesting little experiment:
In a new TV experiment, a group of teenagers set up and run their own school - with impressive results. Hannah Couchman reports
Tuesday October 16, 2007
The GuardianI found out about the TV show from a poster at school. An opportunity for 12 young people to run a school sounded like a something I could really get my teeth into. Filming took place over three eventful weeks, at a private girls' school in Surrey while it was closed for the summer holiday. The students involved were 12 years old and very bright. Some had mild learning difficulties, such as dyslexia. Production were certainly kind to us: they invited well-behaved and interesting young people to take part.
I have always been interested in education. I have campaigned for student voice in all manner of weird and wonderful ways - but this method was certainly a new one, and one that could potentially reach thousands of people. I knew there were things that could prevent us from transforming a school into a vision of democratic education. There would undoubtedly be limits on what we could do, not to mention the overriding need to make "good" television. But I never imagined how stressful and difficult it is to run a school.
All the "teachers", aged 16 to 18, had different skills. Unfortunately, under such extreme circumstances, the slightest upset got blown out of proportion. As much as it would attract attention to say this was the result of group feuds and differing backgrounds, it was actually all down to tiredness and low blood sugar levels. I hate it when parents are right.
The odd living arrangements stopped the experience being realistic. Teachers don't work together from 7am until 11pm, and then spend what little time is left in each other's pockets. I especially noticed this difficulty when I became headteacher, the result of a democratic vote after the first headteacher left the project and the second felt he was being drained of his enthusiasm for teaching drama. I found it really difficult to work with teachers in a professional capacity, having to voice my concerns while wanting to maintain a friendship (or at least courtesy) for everyone's benefit.
We had to compact every school event imaginable into three weeks, including a fete, disco, prom, parents evening, school trip and sports day. Of course, there was plenty of scope for us to deal with these challenges effectively - we were provided with fantastic resources and lots of support. Unfortunately, we were not all energised all of the time, and my desperate attempts to push people were completely unproductive: people work best when they're doing things they want to do and they feel are important.
I found the constant demands on our time frustrating. Even in the two hours we had with no immediate task to complete (although some important event was always hovering on the horizon) we were taken for team-building activities in the middle of a forest in walking boots that did not fit.
There were times when I wanted to be anywhere but there. Equally, there were times when I was so proud of what we had achieved - planning lessons, coming up with new teaching methods, communicating with adults and young people alike, advocating student voice, cooking meals, cleaning classrooms and managing schools events.
The most valuable lesson was that we followed some routes of education that not only worked, but could change the face of education in the future. Our recognition of the fact that all learning is, or should be, connected resulted in a flexible and engaging timetable, in which we concentrated on one theme each day, undertaking lots of different activities for short periods of time. This meant we incorporated many of the curriculum subjects, but managed to avoid the rigidity of the more traditional format.
We also developed a friendship with our students. Maybe this was only appropriate because of our own ages, but going out of their way to build a bond with their students is something all teachers could do. Sit with them at lunch or go and join them in the playground instead of going to the staffroom. And, if this kind of friendship is only possible because of a similarity in age, who is to say we can't have teenagers teaching at our schools? So few schools are making use of their enthusiastic older students and motivated younger students to create a fantastic learning environment. We found bringing down the barriers of formality between teacher and student incredibly rewarding - and we were repaid with a level of respect and appreciation we never expected.
Our assemblies were active and refreshing, used for activities such as tai chi, yoga, singing, drama or just general discussion around nonsensical questions (even appreciating The Book of Thunks by Ian Gilbert). When the prom was approaching, Natasha, our maths teacher, planned to use one assembly for jive dance lessons, trying to avoid the situation in which all the girls stand around looking embarrassed while the boys skid along the floor on their knees.
More than anything, we tried to make our school fun. Most of what we did involved being active and moving around, or was designed to fire the imagination and encourage free thinking. We taught politics with a noisy, unruly and highly realistic reconstruction of parliament. The English civil war was re-enacted with balloons (the blue being the parliamentarians and the red the royalists, of course) - and the students remembered not only the facts but also the thoughts and opinions behind them. There is room for this in education. I'm sure it does happen in many schools, but it needs to become the norm.
We chose to have very little formal assessment - in fact, the little we did have was part of the programme of challenges we had to meet. We felt, as the analogy goes, that there's no point in weighing a pig time after time - it doesn't put on any weight unless you feed it better. Trained teachers know the progression of their pupils without constant assessment - they're doling out pretty accurate exam predictions regularly.
Schools have a massive responsibility to nurture young people not only to be good citizens, but to have inquiring minds that are eager to learn. At the moment, we're letting them down. Now is the time to take a step back and realise what we really want to achieve as a country - over-stressed young people desperately slaving away for the grade their school needs to stay at the top of the tables, or confident, healthy, happy students who look forward to going to school each morning.
· Leave Us Kids Alone, BBC3, Wednesday, 17 October at 7.30pm. Hannah Couchman is studying a degree course in law at the University of Oxford