Top marks

While politicians, teachers and parents are only too keen to
tell us what they think of schools, the views of children are
largely unheard. Relatively few surveys test pupils’ attitudes
towards school, especially at primary level. The few studies which
exist generally report an overwhelmingly positive response.

School won a big thumbs up in a survey by Unicef in 2001. Some
15,000 children in 35 European countries including the UK were
questioned on school issues. Nearly seven out of 10 of the children
reported good relationships with teachers while more than 75 per
cent enjoyed good relations with schoolmates.

Similar findings emerge in an annual survey of pupils in UK primary
and secondary schools carried out by researchers at Keele
University since 1989. More than 80 per cent of pupils give schools
their vote of approval, according to the university’s senior
research fellow Mike Johnson. “They are usually very positive about
their education,” he says.

Now schools’ inspectorate Ofsted plans to delve further into
pupils’ attitudes and is piloting questionnaires seeking children’s
views as part of its routine inspections in a handful of

Judging by the views of one small group of youngsters at primary
schools in a corner of south east London, Ofsted should be
pleasantly surprised.

“I like everything about school,” says Gwyn, aged eight, while
Susannah, who is five, says she has not got a favourite subject
because “it is all too good”. Georgia, aged seven, sums it up: “You
do learn lots of stuff and I like seeing my friends there.”

Older pupils give school their vote of approval too and have no
major gripes. Sam, Max and Ellie, all nine, say they like school
because they enjoy learning and meeting their friends. Teachers,
lessons and even homework all win their approval.

But the conformity is perhaps not so surprising considering the
vast majority of school children know no alternative. Dig a little
deeper and strong views do emerge on certain topics.

“You learn stuff sometimes, which is interesting, but sometimes you
just learn the same stuff over and over again,” says Ellie, in year
five. Sam, in year four, agrees. “At times it gets a bit boring
because you have groups and if one person isn’t listening you have
to go over it all over again.” He believes three days is quite
sufficient to learn any new topic yet teachers “often teach you
stuff you have learned in year one”. Georgia, in year three, also
complains that some of the work is “really, really easy”.

But Susannah is quite happy with her transition from the
play-dominated reception to work-orientated year one. “Now we don’t
get any play in the classroom,” she says, adding: “I do like to
play but I like work better.” She recognises her own progress too,
remarking: “One day I looked at my book and I saw my handwriting
was much neater than it was in reception.”

Teaching staff, too, come out with general approval, although the
youngsters have firm ideas about what makes a good teacher. Ellie
reserves her strongest disapproval for supply teachers who “can’t
control the class”. Being fair and treating all pupils equally is a
strong theme. “Sometimes teachers have what is called a teacher’s
pet,” says Sam. “They like a certain person quite a lot and if they
do something that is against the rules they don’t tell them off. I
think teachers should like everyone the same amount.”

The ideal teacher, according to Sam, is someone who is kind, fun,
“not necessarily strict but firm”, and treats everyone equally,
while he notes wryly that: “Teachers always win arguments but the
teacher is not always right.” For Ellie the perfect teacher is
“funny, not grumpy” while her sister Georgia seeks someone who
“gives the right amount of work for each table” and has no

Even more important than relationships with teachers are
friendships with classmates. For Max, school is essentially a place
where you meet friends, while Georgia is unhappy when her friends
“go stroppy or get upset with each another”. Usually the girls sort
out their arguments among themselves, she says, although in Sam’s
class rows led at one point to “19 girls crying at the same

More troublesome conflicts demand more ingenious solutions.
Although none of the youngsters says they are bullied, all
recognise the disruption that bullies sometimes cause. In Max’s
class, one boy has been nominated as the “minder” of another
classmate who is often aggressive, while Sam’s class sat down in
“circle time” to discuss the problems caused by another boy, new to
the class, who kicked and threatened other pupils. Appreciating the
newcomer felt insecure, the classmates voted to nominate five
volunteers to act as his friends and remind him when his behaviour
deteriorated. “He is quite a lot better now,” says Sam.

The youngsters use their voting power in other ways too. Gwyn’s
school has a playground committee which consults other pupils on
play equipment, while Ellie and Georgia have a school council,
which lobbied to erase the line dividing infant and junior
playgrounds. Although the line remains, they won a communal play
area with benches in colours chosen by votes. Max is a class
representative on his school’s council, which has successfully
campaigned to let pupils eat packed lunches in the quieter
surroundings of the classrooms, although he ruefully notes the
council has had less success in cleaning up the school

However, none of the youngsters would vote to change homework rules
– all agree homework demands are “about right” – while only one
disagrees with school uniform policy. Ellie and Georgia like their
school’s optional uniform because they prefer wearing their own
clothes. Max, Sam and Susannah support their school’s uniform
policy because, according to Max, people don’t get lost on trips,
while in Susannah’s words: “It’s all snuggly inside.” Only Gwyn is
unhappy that his school opted for uniform two years ago because “I
would like to wear whatever I want”.

But if enthusiasm for school uniform, homework and teachers all
seem too good to be true, one school institution remains as
unpopular as ever. Only Gwyn gives school dinners his vote, while
the rest give a clear thumbs down. “The food doesn’t look very
appetising,” says Georgia, while Susannah says: “The first time I
had them they were all nice things but I didn’t know they did
things I didn’t like – like parsnips.”

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