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Future Perfect
The Guardian, June 5th, 2001

They are complaining ('no more teachers' cross voices'), inventive (canteen robots, underwater classes) but above all, realistic. Dea Birkett dips into our postbag

A beautiful and comfortable school

Crumbling Victorian edifices, damp 60s structures, flimsy cabin classrooms. Our poorly designed schools are in utter disrepair. A recent Ofsted report said one in five schools is so dilapidated that the delivery of the curriculum is severely affected.

Most entrants wanted to change this element of their education first, and their fresh designs ranged from the practical to the fantastical. Primary pupil Jade Buniak had a "shape-shifting" school. Domes were very popular - the larger the better, usually made of glass. Many children complained of not enough light, or the wrong kind ("hell with strip lighting") in which to work. Inside was just as important as outside. Angela Gillen called school "a giant magnolia prison". Instead, classrooms should be "as colourful as a parrot's wing", and much larger. Other spaces were called for - quiet study rooms, common rooms, and chill-out rooms. Seats should be softer, tables higher. Overheated classrooms were uncomfortable.

As for comfort, "home away from home" was the key, and the main criteria in designs for uniforms - fleece tops, jogging pants and baseball caps. Drink machines or fountains spouting fizzy drinks as well as water should be dotted about. Children are sick of being thirsty. Lockers should be provided (because "curvatures of the spine at our age are not good"). Despite new Department for Education requirements that all school meals meet nutritional standards, children opted for favourite fast food - branded burgers, chips (not soggy) and pizza.

Nearly every entry talked about toilets. They were dirty, smelly and neither the chains nor the locks worked. There were pleas for paper and soap. This is not a trivial issue. The discovery by a south London headteacher that his pupils were abandoning the leaking school toilets to use pleasanter ones elsewhere and not returning, led to the Architecture Foundation's School Works project, looking at how innovative designs might reduce truancy. "You get the strong sense that they'd like a space of their own, that they'd like dignity," says Tim Brighouse, chief education officer for Birmingham, and a judge.

Research into the impact of the environment supports the requests. "Achievement is related to things such as air-conditioning, locker conditions, classroom furniture, natural light and noise," says Helen Clark, research officer for the Makeover at School project at the Institute of Education. "A high-quality physical environment is a key factor in pupil attainment. Having a decent building is proof to the pupils that they're worth providing for."

Some requests would be easily implemented. One suggested making classrooms brighter by cleaning windows once a month. More books were needed. Several primary entrants asked for more than one pencil a term, as they soon became too short to write with. Then they drew full-length pencils, as if an adult might not know what one looked like.

"My school would have blue wallpaper with silver mirror stars on it and flower clocks. The feel of the wallpaper is velvet. The school would smell like Angel perfume."
Ellis McCusker, aged 7

"When it's absolutely pouring with rain, out of the roof blossoms a ginormous [sic] umbrella and the whole school sort of caves in and moves one floor down into the ground. When it's shining brightly with a hot golden sun, the roof opens out, there's piles more room and all the windows swing open. In the cool spell of winter, the walls let out a hot, sweet-scented steam which rushes out through hundreds of pipes into the classrooms."
Jade Buniak, aged 9

"I would buy the dome and make it the world's best school."
Harjinder Dusanj, year 5

"At the end of the year, your knees are hurting so much you are sure that they [the tables] have done some permanent damage to the tops of your legs."
Natalie McNeill

"Want Coca-Cola with some ice, Free from a fountain would be niceNo more custard, no more pies, Have McDonald's with french fries T-shirts, pedal pushers party frocks, trainers, baseball caps, Pokémon socks."
Year 2, Beeches infant school

"Pupils don't want state of the art blackboards or expensive televisions they want comfortable chairs."
Rhys Corbett, aged 15

"My idea is that we should have more equipment. I first got the idea when I had to revise for my maths text and do my geography homework (which took me three hours) all in one night. This was because I had to share geography books with someone else and give it to them the next day. I managed somehow, but I got to sleep really late that night."
Nicole Rennick, aged 11

"People who want to talk about football all the time can have a special room to talk about football. I want to talk about cricket."
Year 10, Longley School

A respectful and listening school

"Respect" was the single word that occurred most; it was what the children wanted, yet felt they didn't get. They were cajoled into doing work they weren't interested in, made to fit into someone else's ideal curriculum, and most of all not listened to. They were treated like kids. Few objected to rules - in fact, most children wanted clear guidelines. It was unfair rules, written only for the benefit of the adults, that they objected to. Some had a few kind words for the rule enforcers - the teachers; many felt they were bound by Sats results and league tables. But no one was hated as much as a bad, boring teacher. Some suggested they should be eliminated altogether, replaced by machines ("telly teachers"). But most argued that they should be retrained to become more flexible, understanding and enthusiastic.

How should pupil power and opinion be exercised? There were many suggestions: pupils on the board of governors; voting for teachers; a school board with a girl and boy from each class (equal representation of the sexes was a concern); replacing school assemblies with debates; five minutes' feedback after daily register. The physical environment should reflect this new openness, with rows abolished in favour of circles.

"No school suffers from making sure that at the beginning of each school year the kids debate what rules and regulations are," says Tim Brighouse. "No school suffers from giving their school council Ł5,000 out of their budget to improve things the kids have pointed out. Schools only gain from taking such steps."

"There would be rules, but they would guide us, not confine us. There would be punishments, but these punishments would matter to the student."
Maise Monroe, aged 13

"In the school I'd like, a teacher could walk into a classroom and be in the mood to teach. When the teachers are in a good mood the children benefit and learn more. It's been proven that when you feel threatened that your brain stops learning and no one improves."
Jamie Allen, aged 11

"My perfect teachers would have a big smile, rosy cheeks and be kind to children. They would teach well and would let you go to the toilet whenever you want."
Ellis McCusker, aged 7

"The teachers would not shout at you when you're snogging in the corridor."
Jessica Tipton, year 8

"Have you ever thought of having robot teachers. The good thing, for pupils, would be that it probably wouldn't be as strict as a normal teacher and you could muck around. It would have a better IQ than a normal teacher and could make life easier for the actual teachers who wouldn't have to raise a finger. Now for the bad facts ? It wouldn't have such a sense of humour as a normal teacher, and probably wouldn't be funny at all. In the middle of a important lesson he could run out of power and have to be charged up. It could get out of control and go crazy which might frighten the children? If I had a choice between a robot teacher I would pick the robot because it would be quite cool being taught by a robot and would teach me to the maximum. Or I might pick a normal teacher because they're funny sometimes ? and the most intelligent people in the world were taught by humans so they must be good at their job."
William Meaney, year 6

"All the children respected the teachers and the teachers respected the children so altogether they managed to have a very pleasant time of it. A class had 15 children in it and there were only six classes in the whole school, so one got to know everyone else quite quickly."
Susie Bryson, primary

"Even in the 21st century in schools pupils still sit in rows like the Victorians. You can only talk to the person next to you ? this means that in discussion work, which is extremely important in today's society, ideas and suggestions don't come as quickly."
Joanna Brown, lower secondary

"We will no longer be treated as herds of an identical animal waiting to be civilised before we are let loose on the world ? We will cease to be thought of as useless vessels waiting in disciplined conditions to be filled with our quota of information ? We will be thought of as individual people."
Miriam Grossfeld, upper secondary

"I think we should have a quiet time for the last half hour in school ? where you just sit down and talk to the teacher about problems you are having at school."
Sarah Watkins, aged 11

"At the end of every two months, children vote for two children from each age. Children can tell the two children from their age group any ideas for the school. The ideas will then go forward to the minister of education."
Andrew Atkins, aged 11

"Instead of an authority structure which destroys decision-making and a sense of responsibility, and which outside the classroom can prove dangerous, priority is given to structuring relationships so that children can talk to adults, can lean on and trust adults, can ask things of adults, can feel empowered by the adults they come into daily contact with. At present there is a gulf between pupil and teacher that is not a generation thing, but an authority thing. There seems to be a belief that one cannot control a child if one is too friendly with it.'"
Hero Nightingale, aged 14

A relevant and flexible school

The message was clear: school is boring, but it doesn't have to be that way. If only lessons were made more relevant, learning could be fun. Subjects should be explored through experience, by doing rather than being shown.
The suggestions were innovative, from school dinners themed on space food or second world war rationing, to geography trips to tropical rainforests. John Paul Martindale was unusual in designing a specialist History School, where the playground had replica castles, classrooms were in different time zones "such as cowboys, Romans, Celts and Vikings", and teachers were "knights and tribal leaders". Many children wanted teachers who were not only teachers but practitioners. Science teachers should be real scientists, English teachers should work as literary critics, IT teachers should have worked in the industry.

Specific names recurred - Robbie Williams as singing teacher, Westlife for dance, JK Rowling for English, Linford Christie for PE, Carol Vorderman for maths, Bill Gates for IT and Albert Einstein for physics.

Children were against the strictures of the national curriculum, which prevented them tackling subjects in depth. Technology was an aid to more flexible study, allowing teachers and pupils to work from home. They embraced it, often wanting more computers, used more imaginatively. But Ione Woolacott warned of the dangers of going too technical: she didn't want a silent classroom with children sitting at individual laptops, but a big room full of debate.

Exams and homework were too burdensome and unfair. The children were not shirkers; they wanted more school, not less - more breakfast clubs, after-school clubs and holiday courses. They want to be educated and enjoy it.

"Teachers to use less of their cross voices."
Will Honey, aged six, dictated to mother, Clare

"The teachers will set a child something very percific [sic] to write about - for example in history they ask 'when did' and in science they ask 'why did' - but one question they don't ask, the question that will stretch a child's mind more than any other, is 'what if'."
Emma Reay, lower secondary

"The most unusual thing about my [ideal] school is the teachers. They never go off sick. So we never have any supply teachers who can't remember our names."
Jade Buniak, aged 9

"In my ideal school, respect for people and for the world around you, would be taught before anything else. Biology would be taught with wonderment and amazement. Instead of simply being the clinical dissection and analysis of an organism for biological investigation. A bunch of flowers should be acknowledged as a beautiful and marvellous creation, rather than a bunch of 'sex organs' ready for reproduction."
Angela Gillen, aged 15

"In a normal day, the children would be able to choose one subject, and keep at it for the rest of the day. At lunchtime they would be able to read a book or use the internet. The teachers would also have the internet so that children could email them with their problems. In the end, the children would learn because they would want to learn."
Andrew Cole, aged 13

"Imagine there's no Ofsted, Schools all on 'alert', No compulsory subjects, You can even garden in the dirt!'"
Tom Copping (to the music of John Lennon's Imagine), upper secondary

"Beneath the playdome would be a top-secret rocket launch pad so the pupils could go on trips to distant planets when studying the solar system, and the moon when learning about gravity."
Kimberley Beavan, aged 11

"The exams would not take a big part of your grade. That is very important because perhaps, if you are feeling nervous, you have a headache or you are simply feeling bad you can't work with all your effort."
Agustina Sartori, aged 14

"Each club is thought up by the pupils, arranged by the pupils and led by the pupils. We feel that this will help them to develop their leading skills which aren't encouraged at the normal school."
Hannah Watson, aged 11

A school without walls

Trees, animals and grass should be part of every school landscape. Primary school pupils in particular wanted the natural world to intrude into their school, rather than be fenced off from it, suggesting pet corners, zoos and wild gardens instead of playgrounds. There could be bird boxes and picnic tables to eat outside in the summer. Fatema Kapacee wanted a new subject - NWOL (natural wildlife outside life).

Nature and technology could complement each other; pupils could use their laptops outside. These demands for more outside areas are not being met; school playing fields continue to be sold and grass areas built over by classrooms.

Some pupils imagined schools that took place entirely in the open air, or even underwater. Eleven-year-old Hannah Watson's "Timbuctoo Primary" held science lessons in the swimming pool, the most requested addition to the school building. Every plan of the ideal school had a large blue rectangle in the grounds.

"My dream school would be a school which would let me explore the world and tell me human knowledge. To achieve this, the ideal school would be located in three different places: underwater, underground and in space. [The underwater school in a submarine] will teach us about marine life and communicating with fishes and marine mammals such as dolphins."
Gautier Deplanque, primary

"A sensory garden outside would be nice / With lots of herbs to give it spice / For those of us who can't see very well / We'd need some plants with a powerful smell / With lots of fruits and herbs to taste / We're sure that none would go to waste / Getting the experts from the Ground Force team / Would help complete our garden dream."
Form entry from Birtenshaw Hall School for pupils (aged 16-19) with disabilities

"A swimming pool is really expensive so we will have to raise a lot of money and other people could use it at night and at the weekend and in school holidays."
Year 10, Longley school

A safe school

Many children were concerned for their safety. They wanted the school grounds to be protected by scanning handprints at the school gate, an intercom, or swipe card. They wanted fire exits in every room, first-aid classes (many drawings of accidents waiting to happen were submitted), and holes in the playground to be filled in so they didn't fall.

Other children could also make them feel secure. "Buddy systems", where older children look out for younger, especially in the first year of secondary, were suggested. Bullies were to be dealt with. But, perhaps sensing that sometimes they themselves might be on the wrong side of the rules, they had novel ways of punishing those who misbehaved. William Brearley invented an NCR - naughty children robot - who escorted bad children on a travelator to the headteacher. Jade Buniak said: "Bullies aren't bullies for long, because they have the badness tickled out of them by a tickling machine."

"If I had loads of money to change the school I would have any anti-bully alarm, and a weather predictor to predict wet play times ?'"
David Silman, aged 8

"Sometimes when the bell goes people get scared because you get pushed."
Zhabana Mahhul, aged 13

"I would like a school with kind and quiet people and a teacher who would help me whenever I got stuck. And I'd like a school where I would not get bullied in the playground and in school. And all the teachers are nice and friendly."
Jessica Forest, aged 9

A school for everybody

The children wanted everyone, girls and boys, to be able to go to their ideal school - whatever their background, beliefs, abilities or disabilities. Year 6 at Swanick Primary School designed a "helping hand school" with braille computers and induction loops. Grading was rejected as divisive and inappropriate; children should be praised for doing their best.

School buildings should be open to anyone who wanted to use them. Perhaps there could even be a universal language that everybody could learn at school.

"My school is an all-boys school so we need some girls, not in a rude way, but so we can have an opinion of girls."
Joe Rowell, year 9

"There would be no grading, praise only for working hard not for your mental capability ? We would not be concerned about whether we did the best in the class, but only about whether everyone was happy with what he or she was doing and how he or she was progressing."
Joanna Brown, lower secondary

"A lot of pupils don't get cups even when they try their best. Somehow it always seems to be the best pupils in the school who always win cups. It's only the pupils who are good at sports and are in the top group - like me - who get awards for sport. It's the same for history, geography, maths, science, IT and VR. Why can't people in the bottom group get a cup for trying to improve? At my dream school I'd give out more awards and give out emerald rosettes for the runner ups."
Guy Warman, year 5

"So what would my ideal school be like? Apart from being inclusive? The word comprehensive springs to mind, a neighbourhood school that is comprehensive in what it offers, a school for anyone."
Hero Nightingale, aged 14

"My ideal school would be the main meeting place in the village, and make money from the out of hours meetings. It can be used for weddings, parties and clubs such as brownies, guides, cubs and scouts, adult education classes, choirs etc ? There would be a mother and toddler group and senior citizen activities."
Florence Beastall, year 6

The Guardian School I'd Like archive

A fter the original School I'd Like competition ran in the Observer in 1967, the material, save one edited book, was lost and dispersed. This is a great pity because collections such as these can be valuable in measuring change - and hopefully improvement - over time.

Today, the voice of children and young people is valued as an important and valid factor nfluencing social policy. It is considered right that their views should be listened to. This time, all competition entries will be kept together as an archive for current and future research in the field of education and learning. Each and every entry is therefore valued equally and, as long as the collection is used, the voices of the many thousands of young people who took part in the competition - with their ideas, suggestions and criticisms - will not die away.

The Guardian School I'd Like archive will be kept by the museum of the history of education at the university of Leeds.

The archive will exist to:
  • Allow future researchers insights into young people's views on education and schooling at the end of the 20th century.
  • Document the use of ICT in schools.
  • Enable future researchers to evaluate changes in school and classroom design.
  • Provide source material for comparative research for non-UK researchers.
Children, young people, parents and teachers can continue to contribute their ideas on how learning environments should be organised for the 21st century.

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