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Pupils as assessors in quality assurance of schools

The research revealed that according to Maltese pupils, the top 10 quality indicators of a good school are: 1. Good teachers; 2. A clean school; 3. A good head of school; 4. A safe environment; 5. Cooperation between teachers and pupils; 6. Respect between pupils; 7. Pupils respect teachers; 8. A pleasant atmosphere at school; 9. Good assistant heads of school; 10. Good behaviour from pupils.

The research revealed that according to Maltese pupils, the top 10 quality indicators of a good school are: 1. Good teachers; 2. A clean school; 3. A good head of school; 4. A safe environment; 5. Cooperation between teachers and pupils; 6. Respect between pupils; 7. Pupils respect teachers; 8. A pleasant atmosphere at school; 9. Good assistant heads of school; 10. Good behaviour from pupils.

Pupils are the main beneficiaries and the main victims of the schooling process; yet they are often overlooked as assessors. Their young age and their relatively lower status in the power hierarchy of a school make it easy for adults to neglect the voice of pupils in the role of assessors. However, there are a number of justifications for inviting pupils to act as assessors in schools.

Pupils have a legitimate right to express their views. Paragraph 1 of Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “States parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” In view of this, the provision of a voice to pupils should not be a charitable gesture made by schools; rather, it could be viewed as an obligation that schools should honour.

There are various stakeholders in the educational process and each particular set of stakeholders has its own particular perspective and its own set of values. As John MacBeath (1999) asserts: “The differences in priority remind us that although the school is a school, it is, in some crucial respects, a quite different place for different people.”

Thus, pupils, by their very nature of forming part of one specific group of participants in the educational process, have their own particular viewpoint.

MacBeath (2006) also makes an interesting comparison between the teachers’ view in the classroom with that of pupils. Not only are their positions literally different, but their whole outlooks are different. He refers to the teacher’s perspective as a bird’s-eye view; in contrast, he calls the pupils’ perspective a worm’s-eye view. An adult can never fully perceive school through the eyes of a pupil; only a pupil can do that.

Giving a voice to pupils could provide them with a hands-on educational experience on citizenship. In their own right, pupils may be considered as ‘citizens’ of the school they attend. Within the confines of their school, ‘pupil voice’ is a means by which pupils are also fulfilling their rights as citizens who can formulate their own ideas and who are critical of their surroundings. The experience gained at school could instil active social responsibility, public spirit and commitment to society.

The author carried out a study on how Maltese pupils assess schools. The main research question was: From the pupil’s perspective, what are the quality indicators of a good school? The main research tool was a questionnaire survey, with 1,618 pupils, from two pupil year groups: eight-year-olds and 14-year-olds. Pupils were asked to rank a list of quality indicators of a good school.

Pupil participation was embedded in all stages of the research design. Pupils were asked to co-design the main research tool – the questionnaire – and to co-analyse the main findings of the questionnaire survey. The study adopted a Mixed Methods approach, integrating both quantitative and qualitative data to address the research questions.

In view of the current teacher shortage, the pupils’ assessment evokes the need for a national strategy to address the problem

Qualitative data was collected through focus group sessions with pupils, group interviews with student councils, and one-to-one interviews with heads of schools and policy-makers. Data was gathered from a total of 42 different State schools. A cluster sampling framework was used to ensure that the pupil population represented the distribution of pupils across all the colleges in Malta.

The research revealed that according to Maltese pupils, the top 10 quality indicators of a good school are: 1. Good teachers; 2. A clean school; 3. A good head of school; 4. A safe environment; 5. Cooperation between teachers and pupils; 6. Respect between pupils; 7. Pupils respect teachers; 8. A pleasant atmosphere at school; 9. Good assistant heads of school; 10. Good behaviour from pupils.

The data showed that pupils are sending a strong message – it is the people in a school who count. Pupils are placing the onus of a good school on the people they are mostly in contact with: teachers, the head of school, other pupils, and the assistant heads of school. The pupils’ priority to human resources, a pleasant environment, good behaviour, cooperation and respect, indicates that for Maltese pupils, a good school is basically a ‘prosocial school’.

The term ‘prosocial school’ is borrowed from Patricia Jennings’s and Mark Greenberg’s (2009) ‘Prosocial Classroom Model’, which describes a classroom which prioritises the affective needs of its pupils. The pupils’ assessment of what makes a good school highlights the social imperative in the learning process. As Bernie Neville (2013) wrote, “our brains are social”, and the pupils’ assessment confirms this. Through their judgement, pupils are describing how important people and relationships are to them in creating their optimum environment in a school, confirming Neville’s view that emotion and cognition are interlinked and interdependent (2013).

For Maltese pupils, the quality indicator that is most important for a good school is ‘good teachers’. It seems that pupils have identified, what according to John Hattie (2003) is the single most important influence which can make a positive difference in schools: “We have poured more money into school buildings, school structures, we hear so much about reduced class sizes and new examinations and curricula, we ask parents to help manage schools… (it) is like searching for your wallet, which you lost in the bushes, under the lamppost because that is where there is light. The answer lies elsewhere – it lies in the person who gently closes the classroom door and performs the teaching act – the person who puts into place the end effects of so many policies, who interprets these policies, and who is alone with students during their 15,000 hours of schooling.”

During interviews, pupils described the attributes of a good teacher, and the pupils’ focus was on the affective attributes of a teacher; less importance was attached to teachers’ instructive abilities. According to pupils, a good teacher respects pupils, knows them well, makes them feel comfortable and understands them. In view of the current teacher shortage, the pupils’ assessment further evokes the urgent need for a national strategy to address the problem.

In the author’s opinion, we have an obligation to listen to, and to act on, the pupils’ voice in the role of an assessor. Furthermore, by embracing and acting on pupils’ voice in the role of assessor, schools could resist the temptation of becoming echo chambers, where adult voices are sounded and resounded.

By inviting pupils to act as assessors for Maltese schools, schools in Malta can continue to improve and remain relevant to their prime raison d’être: the pupil. However, as Warren Kidd and Gerry Czerniawski (2011) point out this means “we also must prepare to hear things that we do not like”.

This research has basically asked pupils: What makes a good school? The findings have shown that there are no easy answers. Pupils are not asking for gimmicks or more lenient rules. They are expecting much more from us – they are demanding that the very core of teaching and learning, and the accompanying affective and physical environments – be of good quality. The ball is in our court now.

Angele Pulis is a head of a primary school.

angelepulis@gmail.com

The author’s research was supported by a grant under the Malta Government Scholarship Scheme.

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