New evidence on childrens’ voices and rights. But does DfE get it?

Robin Alexanderpost by ROBIN ALEXANDER
Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge

Children, their World, their Education. The basic premise of the Cambridge Primary Review (CPR) was as clear in the title of its final report as in its choice of investigative themes and questions: education is meaningful only when educators understand and coherently respond to the nature and needs of children and the society and world in which they are growing up. Mastering the practical skills of teaching is a necessary but not sufficient condition, and as an educational rationale mantras like ‘effective teaching’ take us to the nearest 3Rs test but no further.

A more comprehensive rationale was crystallised in the twelve aims for primary education that were at the heart of CPR’s final report and that  now inform the work of an ever-increasing number of schools.  In preparing the ground for these, CPR met and listened to children and those who work with them, and many more children added to these face-to-face conversations by writing in. We also commissioned reviews of research on children’s development, learning and lives inside and outside school.

One of these research reviews was on children’s voice and today CPRT publishes its sequel: Carol Robinson’s update of the report that she and Michael Fielding first produced in 2007 and then revised in 2010 for inclusion in The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys.

Last month saw the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The UK is a signatory, but just how far short of the UN’s ideals we fall is daily all too apparent in the media and in CPRT’s recent blogs on young carers, the government’s proposed policy ‘family test’, and the fate of those millions of children caught up in conflict or lacking access to education as a basic human right. Nor is CPRT convinced that the new national curriculum has yet registered that these matters demand a more serious and committed response than DfE has so far provided, though we are certainly convinced that making citizenship optional in primary schools transmits entirely the wrong signal.

Yet all is not gloom, doom and hollow promises. Carol Robinson’s report documents the encouraging growth of research and practice in the area of children’s agency, voice and rights, and of impressive movements like Rights Respecting Schools. Always at risk of being treated tokenistically, children’s voice in many schools now means considerably more than stage-managed deliberations on food and wet playtimes.  This progress should be celebrated.

Probably not at DfE, though:  its recent advice on promoting ‘British’ values rightly encourages schools to ‘ensure that all pupils … have a voice that is listened to’ but confines that voice to the task of demonstrating ‘how democracy works by actively promoting democratic processes such as a school council whose members are voted for by the pupils.’ To DfE, then, voice equates with vote, and we know how little, in Britain’s electoral system, votes count for, or how little notice our democratically-elected government takes of the voices of others than those who toe the party line, not least on educational matters.  But we won’t tell our children about this, will we, for in the official account of British values parliamentary democracy is the envy of the world.

In fact, the most basic test of the seriousness with which we treat what children think and say is not the election of a school council – valuable though its deliberations can be – but the extent to which empowering, exploring and building on children’s articulated ideas is central to our every teaching encounter and to the everyday assessment for learning which at best informs both children and ourselves. Children’s voices will remain unheard, and their understanding will advance thus far and no further, if ‘speaking and listening’ means that teachers do all the speaking and children all the listening; or if the writing through which children express their ideas is confined to repeating those of the teacher.

That’s why CPRT’s eight priorities include not only a commitment to ‘advance children’s voice and rights … in accordance with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child’ but also contingent commitments to the development of patterns of teaching and assessment for learning in which genuine dialogue is paramount. This term we have published Wynne Harlen’s report on assessment and Carol Robinson’s on children’s voices. Next term we’ll be presenting reports from Usha Goswami, David Hogan, Dennis Kwek and Peter Renshaw on learning and teaching. In parallel, we are working with Pearson to develop jointly-branded CPD programmes in these areas. All these initiatives are united by the imperatives of childhood.

It is classroom pedagogy that most tellingly liberates children’s voices; but in the wrong hands it is pedagogy that most decisively suppresses them.

View/download Carol Robinson’s CPRT research report Children, their voices and their experiences of school: what does the evidence tell us?

View/download a four-page briefing on Carol Robinson’s report.

View/download Wynne Harlen’s CPRT research report Assessment, standards and quality of learning in primary education and/or the accompanying four-page briefing.

Find out more about these and CPRT’s other research initiatives.

Find out more about the joint CPRT/Pearson CPD programmes on children’s voice, assessment and other topics.

Read the DfE guidance ‘Promoting fundamental British values as part of SMSC in schools’ (November 2014).

This blog was originally posted on the Cambridge Primary Review Trust’s website.