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An Unknown Hero



Dream On
The Guardian, July 6, 2004

David Miliband holds up an apple. Sarah Noyce, a year 8 student at Newfield comprehensive in Sheffield, is asking him to introduce more philosophy classes into schools "to find out more about the way people think and they way they are different". The school standards minister said he had recently visited a primary where an apple had been placed in the middle of the room and the teacher had asked the pupils: "How do you know it's an apple?"

The curriculum was a big concern for Sarah, one of six pupils meeting the minister in his office. All were winners of the School I'd Like competition, run three years ago in Education Guardian. More than 15,000 primary and secondary school pupils told us about the school of their dreams and the children's manifesto was drawn up from their comments. Last week, the competition winners had the opportunity to revisit their ideas and discuss with Miliband what, if anything, had changed and what remained to be done.

With the government due to publish its five-year plan for schools this week, it was a good opportunity for some 11th-hour lobbying of one of the ministers who matter; someone tipped as a future prime minister, too.

The pupils clearly wanted more choice - not between schools, for there was incredible loyalty to their own schools - but inside their own classroom. They felt the school day was still dominated by the requirements of the national curriculum, which did not leave them time to delve deeper into the subjects that really interested them.

Miliband offered them further choices: "Would you like to be taught to drive, or to type?" he asked. None of the six children had been taught how to write using a keyboard; all, however, used computers on a daily basis at school.

Although they welcomed the introduction of computers, and particularly liked interactive whiteboards, the older pupils warned that not all new technologies are exciting. "You get tired of endless PowerPoints," said James Marshall, a year 11 student at Ivybank school in Burnley. "And some teachers don't know how to use the computers, so it all takes too long while they try and work it out."

As the original entrants had pointed out, small changes can make a big difference. All six pupils complained that they still do not have water to drink in class. The minister was disappointed, and a little surprised. "If I'm doing some work at my desk, I've often got a cup of tea with me, as it helps. So why isn't it usual for children to have water with them? It should be."

Then there was the issue of toilets - something mentioned in nearly every one of the 15,000 competition entries. Miliband agreed. "If you get the toilets right, you get the teaching right," he said. The minister is fond of snappy sayings: "Give a child a lesson and you keep them learning for an hour; teach them how to learn and you make them citizens for life," he told the children.

But was the mantra-loving minister listening? The School I'd Like was about giving children a voice. At last, the consumers of education had been asked what they wanted in their school of the future. Oliver Yazdi, in year 5 at Christchurch primary school in Kensington and Chelsea, west London, was disappointed that one of the manifesto demands had not been met. "We thought we could vote who we wanted to be our teacher," he said. Very few schools appoint pupil governors; you can count on one hand the number who have involved pupils in interviewing staff; and only one has allowed them to pick the caterers.

But the six young people in the minister's office also felt that attempts at pupil representation were half-hearted; Sarah said meetings of the school council were cancelled, or happened only once a term. Chris Kearns, 16 years old and at Ivybank with James, agreed. "School councils are a good system but after a while they tend to go under. They just don't have that much power," he said. Miliband was again disappointed with the news from the ground. "It's important to give pupils a voice. When they come up with good ideas there must be a good reason for not following them up," he said.

For Oliver's primary school, the School I'd Like competition made a difference. The school is being rebuilt, and throughout the design process, regular meetings were held with pupils to listen to their ideas. Christchurch's winning entry was to build a conservatory with a glass dome and a glass aquarium floor to allow the light to flow through. The new space would be an environmental studies workshop, meditation centre and a butterfly house. In Christchurch's final design, the new school will have a glass dome.

The government is emphasising the importance of the built environment in its plans for schools. The Building Schools for the Future programme ambitiously aims to transform every secondary school within 15 years. Miliband told the pupils he wanted schools to be "a building that says we respect you". To demonstrate his vision, the six winners were taken to a school he sees as a model for the future.

Capital City Academy in Brent, north-west London, is a Norman Foster-designed building, where the prime minister and Miliband launched the Building Schools for the Future scheme last February. Despite opposition from teaching unions, which see them as divisive, the government is set to expand the number of city academies from 12 to 200 within the next six years.

This school of the future had a strong resemblance to Stansted airport. The pupils' initial response was "Wow", quickly followed by Chris saying: "It looks like an office block. It's like a workplace, not a school."

"It looks like Ikea," said James.

"It feels like a headquarters," said Oliver, aged 10. "Yeah, M16 or something," said his classmate Victoria Gallagher, the youngest of our School I'd Like winners. "I wouldn't like to go here. It's an amazing building, but it doesn't feel right. It doesn't have that nice, friendly feel."

The Capital City Academy is a school that has been built to make a statement. Its facilities include a theatre, dance studios, a state-of-the-art sports hall (it specialises in sport), swipe cards and turnstiles to enter, and a cafe to rival Starbucks, with pain au chocolat and croissants neatly displayed. There are no more dinner ladies. When I asked for a coffee, the server asked if I'd like cappuccino, espresso or latte.

Frank Thomas, the principal, said the aim was to provide an "adult environment", looking forward to higher education rather than back to primary. This alarmed Oliver and Victoria. Even Chris, at 16, was overwhelmed. "You'd feel like you're working. For younger people, it's a bit too much."

But when the minister isn't chanting about teaching and toilets, it is standards that concern him. The education, education, education mantra has moved on to standards, standards, standards. Everything - from swipe cards to croissants - is seen as working towards that goal.

Chris was unconvinced of such a strict causal link between built environment and achievement. His Ivybank school was built for 400 pupils; there are now nearly 1,000. "Facilities at our school have got better, but behaviour has got worse," he says. "We've had our toilets refurbished, painted and all that, but already they've been graffitied. We had new interactive whiteboards installed, but then 10 of the projectors were stolen." James, who has just sat his GCSEs, complained: "The fire alarm goes off every five minutes. People think it's funny. It went off in our GCSEs. We just stayed seated."

Capital City does promise its 850 students wonderful facilities - but the tennis courts are not open yet, and the principal pointed to a large patch of mud that will become the playing field. The fear is, with the rapid expansion of city academies, funding will inevitably be distributed more thinly. The existing academies are already expressing concerns that the original large capital start-up costs will soon dry up. As they are independently run outside local authorities, and their private sponsors have no commitment to cover ongoing expenses, the source for continued finance is uncertain.

Unsurprisingly, better and longer use of these expensive buildings is high on the minister's agenda. Capital City Academy is open from 7am until 11pm, and pupils are encouraged to stay after hours to use its facilities. In the School I'd Like competition, very few entrants wanted less school, just better school. The minister, who wants every child to have a "residential experience", asked the winners if they wanted summer schools - the government offers places for gifted and talented children and the Get Real (Really Exciting Active Leisure time) summer school scheme, which they will be expanding this year.

"Often people tell me that they're a bit bored in the holidays. What about summer school in sport or space exploration?" the minister asked. Oliver thought it was a great idea, because he was an only child; Victoria liked it because both her parents worked. Sarah wanted to be able to do one in just one subject, like RE.

But if they wanted more school, they definitely wanted fewer exams. "It's not good to be put under so much pressure," said Chris, who has just finished his GCSEs. "Coursework and modules are a much better idea." Miliband cheerily told Oliver and Victoria, both 10, that they didn't have to worry about exams yet. But they do. Both pupils are already all too aware about their Sats next year and were concerned about where they would go to secondary school. Oliver was considering travelling some distance to a grammar school far from home, which would have entrance exams. Sarah said there was one thing that those responsible for planning the schools of the future should remember: "A school is about people, a group of people."

Adam Lee, who had also just completed his GCSEs at Ivybank and was going on to sixth-form college for A-levels, said he hoped to become a teacher. Miliband was delighted. "You'll be well paid, well supported - and under a good government," he beamed.

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