During my visit to a number of schools in the UK, I saw that things can be different. I am not saying that all their schools are ideal and every child is perfectly integrated into a broader school community. Nevertheless, studies reveal that even though British children may not be the most successful in international comparison (although they still significantly outperform their Slovak counterparts), they certainly are the happiest. In this article, I focus on the inspirational aspects of the British elementary school system that could well be applied in our own educational environment.
In Slovakia, childhood is still perceived merely as a specific episode in life – a phase that must be gotten over with so that a child can grow into a competent, skilful adult capable of acting successfully within the society. People often view childhood from just two perspectives. In the first one, they understand it as an age of innocence and emotional immaturity. Adults looking at childhood from this perspective envy children their light-heartedness and absence of responsibility for their deeds. It is a period of games, which are not considered to be an essential part of life. In playing games, children “simply” pass their time, or possibly learn different skills that will prepare them for the “important” life of adulthood. They are the little angels who bring their parents lots of joy and give their life meaning. From the second perspective, childhood is recognized as the phase during which children impersonate petite devils, whom their parents must raise and educate in order to turn them into real people possessing a certain set of moral values, the adherence to which enables a coherent and smooth functioning of the society.
In both cases, children are the subject of adults’ actions. They do not bear responsibility for their acts, which in turn considerably limits their opportunities to influence their own lives. Education at home, as well as in school, is governed by rules that the children have neither drawn themselves, nor contributed to in any way. Typically, it is guided by the principle of carrots and sticks, which signify what is and what is not considered to be correct behaviour And even in the case of – from an adult perspective – incorrect behaviour, children are hardly ever held truly accountable for what they did. It is as if the punishment annulled their inappropriate conduct and reset their attention to what is correct.
Do we really know what’s best for them?
This almost Pavlovian approach, generating some kind of socially conditioned reflex response, is relatively simple and undoubtedly also effective. Things do not need to be discussed, because clear rules lead to clear results. However, the issue with such an approach is that creates a strong power relationship between children and adults. Adults take this for granted, since it is they (parents, grandparents or teachers) who are responsible for and sufficiently competent to best appraise what is good for the child.
Nevertheless, this is not how children see it. Over the past few years, sociological and psychological research has been increasingly focused on how children alone view their childhood, as well as their relationship towards adults. For instance, the research of Berry Mayall 1 revealed that children have a clear-cut opinion with respect to childhood, and within it, they distinctly define themselves against adults. Although children also identify childhood with absence of responsibility, they also point at a significant hierarchy (“we are always less than adults”, “parents are above us, and we are below”). According to Mayall, children perceive their relationship with adults as a perpetual process of control – they feel that they have to ask their parents or teachers for permission for everything they do.
At the same time, children think of themselves as a minority group. They are greatly sensitive to the inequality and power exercised over them by adults. Teachers and parents frequently resort to punishments that children view as unfair. Instead, they would prefer to receive more opportunities to change or improve their behaviour. In this, children act as mutual allies and perceive themselves as a group that must face adults from an inferior position and cope with their position of authority. This is true in school with respect to teachers, where children find allies among their peers, as well as at home or in families, where siblings act as allies.
Free time? Not under adult control
However, a number of childhood theoreticians 2 emphasize that children are in fact competent and relevant social actors. They are not just immature beings passively accepting the world around them and letting themselves be raised. Instead, they actively influence their environment and, if given a chance, they are able to responsively stand up to various challenges and make decisions of their own. Extensive research shows that children want their voices to be heard and desire to break free from the incessant control of adults. Children observed in the aforementioned research by Mayall regarded free time as the time when “they are not supervised by adults”. Excessive control evokes in children the sense of inferiority and distrust in their ability to bear responsibility for their actions. They consider themselves capable of identifying what they want, as well as communicating it. Nevertheless, they hardly ever get a chance to do it.
This difference between children’s views and everyday reality can be perhaps most strikingly observed in the school environment, or in any other type of institutional care. This is where there is a substantial contrast between British and Slovak elementary schools.
In Slovak schools, the rules for the modus operandi of children and adults are typically very unambiguous. Upon their arrival to school, children must accept and adhere to the instructions that were “prepared” by adults, and any sign of disagreement is considered to be a demonstration of disobedience, misbehaviour or open rebellion, disturbing the school’s normal functioning and the smooth course of education. The sounding board for children’s voices is in Slovak schools limited to pupil or student parliaments, whose existence is often merely formal, without any real opportunity to co-operate on the matters pertaining to children. Many of these parliaments are not even representative – they are often composed only of the “best” students or those selected by teachers. This is why pupils do not feel that their interests are truly represented by anyone, and thus do not bother to make use of these parliaments to communicate their needs.
Can’t we use MP3s? How about MP4s?
In one elementary school in Pezinok (a town in Western Slovakia), I recently saw the rulebook defining the relationship between the student parliament and the school’s management. The language in which these guidelines were crafted, as well as their content, suggested that they were certainly not written by children. They did not refer to any children’s rights; it was rather a list of duties that the pupils “decided” to fulfil with respect to the school. The rulebook did not contain any children’s ideas regarding the school’s functioning. It simply adhered to the school order that was already in place. This in practice usually means that children simply do not identify with such rules and do not feel that they should also be “theirs”. They then naturally look for options to bypass the rules in such a way that would enable them to avoid the punishment that automatically follows infringement. And in this they can be truly resourceful, as demonstrated by an example from one elementary school in Partizánske (another town in Western Slovakia). Some pupils there responded to the ban on MP3 players by starting to use MP4 players, basically finding a loophole in a rule that they evidently did not agree with.
Another important aspect of school rules is the fact that they almost always apply exclusively to children and invariably carry a negative connotation. Only children are obliged to change shoes at school, and it is again only they who are not allowed to turn on their mobile phones, even during breaks. These rules do not apply to teachers, which the children view as unjust. In addition to that, the negative formulation of the guidelines means that children frequently feel that all the school aims to do is to forbid them from things and control them. It is highly likely that if the common rules encouragingly described mutual relations (e.g. mutual respect and listening to each other, opportunities to speak one’s opinion and be heard) and pertained also to teachers, children would be more willing to accept them and consider them their own.
In order to be acknowledged, the rules must be formulated by those to whom they apply. For instance, young people often consider hair colouring or wearing various accessories or clothing items to be important aspects of their identity, and perceive their prohibition as disrespect. Even teachers may be able to identify with such a simple codification of mutual respect – many of them do not agree with such bans anyway, do not follow them themselves, and yet are obliged to enforce adherence by students although they do not believe it to be right.
We do not know what children want
In Slovakia, we still lack research that would explore the opinions of children or their perception of their own situation. However, children’s participation in decision-making on matters that affect them is already becoming a topic of public policies. For example, the ambitious National Action Plan for Children opens with a chapter in which children express their views about their rights, from which it is obvious that they are also able to formulate their ideas with a great degree of precision. The recorded opinions are the result of a qualitative survey carried out by UNCEF in 2012. For instance, one of the children’s voices sounded as follows:
“They should indeed not scream at us, they should spend with us more time and treat us equally, and listen to our views, because kids can have great ideas, too. Our parents should trust us more, take care of their children and serve as their role models. Teachers could make schools better, give us less homework and not stress us out. Everything would be easier if the adults gave our opinions a fair hearing and took them into account. We wish that you would care more about us than about the development of new computers or the exchange rate of the euro.”
Nevertheless, as far as schools are concerned, this participative model is gaining space very slowly, if at all. Perhaps this is the reason why there is still more screaming than calm discussion. If children counted as partners in such discussion, schools could avoid many conflicts and pupils would consider punishments for disobedience of rules fairer than is currently the case. At the same time, punishment would be much less frequent, as it would not be necessary. If children in fact admit responsibility for their actions, they alone begin to regulate them in a manner that aims to prevent punishment. They are aware of the consequences of their behaviour, and based on that, they act with greater respect towards others.
One of the most important reasons to accept and hear out the voices of children is not only the imperative of greater justice and creation of space for co-decision about oneself, but also the fact that the view of adults often does not necessarily take into account children’s real needs, although the adults themselves are frequently stubbornly convinced of the opposite. An activity that was undertaken at one elementary school in Zvolen (a town in Central Slovakia) some time ago is a good point in the case. Children were invited to raise their opinions with respect to the traffic situation in their school’s vicinity. The kids figured out that the large trash bins which were located in front of the school blocked their vision when they were crossing the street. The adults would never have noticed this, because they were taller and hence for them, the bins were not a problem. This trivial example points out that children’s perspectives can be significantly different, but still very relevant. However, trash bins blocking vision are in fact just a small concern of specific pupils in a specific school, while many other and more critical issues pertain to a considerably larger number of children. Which is exactly the reason why children’s voices should obtain a much larger space for expression and receive serious consideration, because children’s suggestions can often benefit everyone.
No child left behind UK-style
From this perspective, my recent study visit in the UK was extraordinarily inspiring. Theoretical literature shows that in the UK, integration of children into decision-making has already been emphasized for several decades. For instance, children take part in designing playgrounds and other public spaces intended for their use. 3 The policies that were introduced in the UK almost forty years ago were based on the principle of “no child left behind”, which was meant to not only prevent exclusion of selected groups of children from mainstream education, but also to provide an active sounding board for their voices in schools. Enforcement of this principle was evident in the schools that we visited. Their ambience differed from that observable at first glance in the majority of Slovak elementary schools. The environment in the classrooms, as well as in the entire school buildings, was substantially child-friendlier. Children’s movement through the school was more natural, because it was more adjusted to their needs as opposed to those of the adults. The latter are viewed as people who are in the school for children, and not the other way around.
Despite this – or perhaps precisely because of it – children in British schools seem far more calm and “disciplined” than their Slovak peers. I am convinced that this is the effect of them not being so tied up by strict rules that apply only to them. This is not to say that all rules should be abandoned. They simply need calibration and co-operation with children, at which point it is feasible to expect that they will be accepted and respected, as we ubiquitously saw in the British schools. The guidelines there were fashioned in a friendly package and hung around on various notice boards in classrooms as well as in common areas, and they did not give an air of control, bans, or limitations.
Similarly, the conversations between teachers and pupils that we had a chance to observe appeared more forthcoming, considerate and peer-like. Whether during classes or breaks, the children did not give the impression that they viewed their teacher as someone to watch out for, or even fear. What was even more interesting was that one of the schools we visited was designed with the direct participation of children, including the organisation of the inner spaces. In other words, it was not only the architects, sanitation workers, firemen and school management who had their say, but also the school’s ultimate users. The children were used to getting involved and taking responsible decisions to the benefit of everyone, which was demonstrated by the fact that they did not take only their own comfort into account in their proposals. For instance, they suggested proximity sensor-controlled water taps to save water, or rooms for teachers so that they are “at hand”. What could make the fact that environmental and ethics education really have an effect more evident than this example showing that children think of others and simultaneously take a responsible stance towards the surrounding environment?
Slovak schools may be inspired by the UK educational system in a number of aspects. Many pertain directly to the process, content and forms of actual education delivery. Nevertheless, the environment in which children are educated influences not only how they feel, but also what results they achieve. We do not dedicate much attention to this in Slovakia, although it is obvious that children cannot succeed if they do not feel well at schools, if they are confined to strict supervision without any opportunity to express themselves freely and responsibly, and without any input as to how “their” schools shall look and function.
(The article is an edited version of a chapter published in the Slovak language in the publication by Dráľ, P. and Oravec, L. (eds.) 2014. Vzdelávanie detí cudzincov. Inšpirácie pre inkluzívne vzdelávanie z anglických škôl (Education of children of foreigners. Inspiration for inclusive education from UK schools). Bratislava: Nadácia Milana Šimečku.)
- Mayall, B. 2002. Toward sociology for childhood. Buckingham: Open University Press. ↩
- See for example William A. Corsaro, who in his research focuses on peer cultures and the effect of children on society, or Mary Jane Kehily, who writes about changes that childhood will face in the future, or alternatively, Michael Wyness dealing with social construction of childhood. ↩
- Wyness, M. 2006. Childhood and Society. An Introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. New York: Palgrave. ↩