The School We'd Like
The Guardian, June 5th, 2001
Children's voices have not been heard during this election campaign - until now. Some 15,000 of them entered our competition, The School I'd Like, demanding radical change. Dea Birkett unveils the children's manifesto.
Read the entries
A school in a giant submarine with waterproof maps of the underwater world. Private helicopters to fly children to France for their French lessons. Voice-activated pencils. Rocket launch pads to take pupils on trips to distant planets to study the solar system. Canteen robots instead of dinner ladies. Clean toilets, swimming pools, a jug of water in every classroom, enough computers and books to go round, fast food school dinners, comfortable uniforms, flexible timetables, chill-out rooms and quieter school bells. School children throughout Britain - primary and secondary - have outlined their plans for the perfect school.
The School I'd Like competition has unleashed the most imaginative, stimulating and provocative challenges to our educational system. And those challenges have come entirely from children. Entrusted with designing their own schools, where they spend an average working week, they have grasped the opportunity. They want change.
In the heady idealism of 1967, when our sister paper the Observer ran a competition asking children to design the school of their dreams, there were almost 1,000 entries. Over 30 years later, when we ran the second School I'd Like, we were cautious in predicting the number of entrants. The pressures of the national curriculum must surely mean that teachers and pupils would have less free time to work on projects, to plan for the seemingly impossible.
We were proved wrong. Some 15,000 children dreamed up their ideal school. Hannah Watson's timbuctoo primary, Catherine Butler's cyber school, Jessica Jameson's utopia secondary, Aleksi Hastings' super skool, and home-educated Drew Bentley's Year 2150AD fantasy school were among the entries that revealed the hope that school time could be fruitful and fun. Most of all, at these ideal educational establishments, every child was eager to attend. It wasn't so much that they despised their schools (although some did). It was what Edward Blishen, who wrote a book on the 1967 competition, had found amongst the entries then. There was a "lack of positive happiness" amongst the children. "And schools, they say, ought to be happy places."
Primary school pupil Sarah Noyce, who designed a school in the shape of a flower, sums up why all the entrants wished their dream school would come true: "So if I had a choice of going to school or staying at home I'd definitely choose to go to school. And I hope if it was really made it would encourage more children to want to come to school."
Entries were encouraged in any form - videos, papier m?ch? models, epic poems, plays, dictated comments, drawings, architectural plans, photographic collages and Braille essays arrived. The winning entry from year 4 at Christ Church CE Primary School consisted of a huge model of a conservatory-like school, a video of each child debating their ideas, and a scrapbook. Primary school entries were the most radical. (The 1967 competition was only open to secondary school children.) Unfettered by concerns about getting a "good education" and school budgets, the young children asked for the fantastical - maths classes in a swimming pool, a naughty children robot to escort bad children on a travelator to the headteacher, fountains that spouted Fanta. Lower secondary students were often preoccupied with safety, wanting security systems and even CCTV fitted. By upper secondary, the plans were becoming more vast and detailed - whole prospectuses for their imaginary schools, often including a staff list and application form.
There were the philosophers, such as the pupil from Ilford County High School: "Education should not close children's eyes to the wonder of learning as it presently does, but should give children the opportunity to feed their mind and never get tired of life before theirs has even begun." But even the high thinkers with the most whimsical designs had a practical edge. It seems that, trusted with the responsibility of redesigning their education, children are ready to meet the challenge. Blishen had found the same so-called adult heads on children's shoulders amongst the entrants. "Juvenile irresponsibility was awfully hard to find. The radical note that was so pervasive was astonishingly steady, reasonable, and supported by instances. I have never read so much that was so full of complaints and criticisms, of schemes for imaginative innovation, and yet that was, as a whole, so very sober."
Many of the children plotted their dreams under the guidance of a teacher who took on The School I'd Like as a class project. In 1967, this led to a mixed post bag. "A few schools seem able to set their children free, intellectually, while others, having children of the same calibre and capacity, shut them up in the prison of a most dreadful conformity, so that you want to turn some sort of key and release them into the world of honest childhood," wrote Blishen. In the 2001 competition, in all but a few entries teachers displayed just as much passion and imagination as those they taught, themselves designing a myriad of methods to encourage group entries. "Moany teachers" came in for much criticism, with hopes that they might be replaced by robots or telly teachers. But the fact that so many encouraged their class to enter suggests that they, too, feel frustrated by the status quo.
Even in the teacher-inspired entries, the judges were looking for an authentic, unfiltered child's voice. By and large that is what they found. They were impressed by the year 2 at Beeches Infant School's dream school rap ("Dream dream school, dream dream school/ Had a dream that's really cool!/School can be a load of fun/Dreamed of things that can be done."), submitted as a cassette and illustrated book. It was a joint effort where, nevertheless, each individual child's contribution could be clearly heard.
Being heard was at the heart of every entry. This is the one plea that also united the 1967 entries. Edward Blishen wrote, "From all the quarters of the educational scene it comes, this expression of children's longing to take upon themselves some of the burden of deciding what should be learned, how it should be learned." Sadly, it is also the one plea that has largely been ignored.
No one proposed no school, although many did suggest less school. (Jonathan Adams wanted to "have a free three days a month development leave where one can take time off school for just being an adolescent. Not having to explain!") But the vast majority just wanted a better school. They wanted to be educated, not indoctrinated. Their argument for accepting and implementing their schemes was convincing: as 13-year-old Andrew Cole said: "In the end, the children would learn because they would want to learn."
Thankfully, there were those who challenged the consensus. A few wanted more homework, more discipline, older teachers (although never above 49) and a strict division between the sexes. Stephanie Limb's make-over school for girls had a uniform of pink halter neck top and a purple and gold skirt. A free lipstick was offered with each school meal. A handful wanted harsher punishments for those who misbehave. "Bullying can be stopped by teachers putting bullies in detention and using a cane," said nine-year-old Amy Wakenshaw. But the romance of the brutal boarding school, which Blishen had noted as a minority interest, had long gone. Where do we go from here? A conference? A second book? An exhibition of the entries? Most of all, now these voices have been heard we hope the answer will not lead to another three decades of silence. Thirty four years after the first School I'd Like, very few of the suggestions put forward have been acted on. Then, the mandate was just under 1,000 children's voices. Now it is over 15,000. "The incredibly huge response to the competition shows that teachers and pupils all over the country realise that the system is outdated, that it does not allow decent expression of the values of creativity and independent thought that are needed in the new post-industrial world," said John Clifford, a winner in the original 1967 competition, who now teaches drama at Queen Margaret University College and is a competition judge.
"It proves yet again that young people are not a problem that needs to be corralled and curfewed, but an incredible rich resource of wisdom and creative thinking that we should learn to listen to." This was the most prominent and powerful message throughout the entries. Lower secondary school pupil Aleksi Hastings had his entry set as a task by his teacher. It began: "Hi, this is a homework that will probably just be written, read and returned, with a mark and some red pen all over it. Yet, I will write this thing anyway." It ended: "Please don't just push this aside as another homework, treat this piece presented before you as an academic breakthrough. Goodbye - and make the dream come true."
The Children's Manifesto
We, the schoolchildren of Britain, have been given a voice. This is what we say:
The school we'd like is:
A beautiful school with glass dome roofs to let in the light, uncluttered classrooms and brightly coloured walls.
A comfortable school with sofas and beanbags, cushions on the floors, tables that don't scrape our knees, blinds that keep out the sun, and quiet rooms where we can chill out.
A safe school with swipe cards for the school gate, anti-bully alarms, first aid classes, and someone to talk to about our problems.
A listening school with children on the governing body, class representatives and the chance to vote for the teachers.
A flexible school without rigid timetables or exams, without compulsory homework, without a one-size-fits-all curriculum, so we can follow our own interests and spend more time on what we enjoy.
A relevant school where we learn through experience, experiments and exploration, with trips to historic sites and teachers who have practical experience of what they teach.
A respectful school where we are not treated as empty vessels to be filled with information, where teachers treat us as individuals, where children and adults can talk freely to each other, and our opinion matters.
A school without walls so we can go outside to learn, with animals to look after and wild gardens to explore.
A school for everybody with boys and girls from all backgrounds and abilities, with no grading, so we don't compete against each other, but just do our best.
At the school we'd like, we'd have:
Enough pencils and books for each child.
Laptops so we could continue our work outside and at home.
Drinking water in every classroom, and fountains of soft drinks in the playground.
School uniforms of trainers, baseball caps and fleece tracksuits for boys and girls.
Clean toilets that lock, with paper and soap, and flushes not chains.
Fast-food school dinners and no dinner ladies.
Large lockers to store our things.
A swimming pool.
This is what we'd like. It is not an impossible dream.
'I know money doesn't grow on trees and if every school had all these things it would cost thousands of thousands of pounds. But even if one of my ideas was just thought about being made a reality I'd be happy.'
Nicole Rennick, 11
'But most important of all was not the fact that the headmaster had ordered the equipment, but that he had listened.'
Holly Mackenzie, 11
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