What Teenagers Think of Their Schools

Recently in Australia there has been considerable debate about the quality of our schools, and particularly how we go about measuring and assessing that quality.

Politicians, educators, parents, commentators, and even yours truly, have all had something to say about establishing a national curriculum, league tables, and national testing. The one group of stakeholders that have been noticeably absent from the conversation thus far has been the students themselves.

Upon reflection this is not so surprising. While we live in a world obsessed with measuring customer satisfaction and gaining client feedback, when it comes to young people and education it is very much the adults who seem to know best.

Having completed an education degree I appreciate that the art, or science, of education is complex and vast. It is a highly developed discipline with a strong sense of its own professionalism.

Perhaps it is the highly professionalized nature of teaching, combined with the intrinsic paternalism within western society, which results in high school students being a neglected voice in the debate about their own education. (I know tertiary students are far from neglected in discussions about their education).

Recently this silence was broken by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) who conducted a survey amongst Australian secondary students to get their feedback about their schools.

The Tell Us Campaign

The Tell Us campaign was a national campaign that asked 10,000 secondary students about the meaning of success at school. Students from every State and Territory in Australia were invited to have their say about the system that educates them.

The campaign demonstrated that secondary students want a more active role and a greater voice in their schooling.

Listed here are some of the quantitative results:

  • 50% of students say they don’t help decide how their school runs.
  • 40% of students say their school listens to what they have to say.
  • 60% of students say that what they know cannot be measured by tests or marks.
  • 58% of students say that what they learn at school is relevant to their life.
  • 57% of students say that school helps them develop their most important skills.
  • 57% of students say school helps them reach their full potential.

Depending on who you are the above results can be used to support various aspects of the current debate. A majority of students acknowledge their schools benefit them, yet only a minority feel that their voice is heard by the educational institutions.

The results that caught my eye however were some of the comments.

Other Feedback – How to Value Students

Listed below are the some of the comments collected from students during the campaign.

  • I think the most successful thing I am at school is being in the SRC Club, which means I can put my say to my school.
  • My sporting achievements were mentioned at assembly. It felt really good to be Acknowledged.
  • I felt successful at school when I was the president of the Make Poverty History club. I helped organise and run an awareness and fund raising week.
  • I felt successful at school when I was appointed House Vice-Captain in Year 11. It was more important than just doing well in a test, it showed me that I was valued as more than just a student, but as a worthy contributor to the community.
  • I felt most successful at school after my Outdoor Education Camp last year. Although I didn’t stand out from the crowd in particular, I felt successful because we as a group had bonded and strengthened our friendships – we all helped each other.

These comments highlight what it is that gives teenagers a sense of value and achievement. None of the comments above are related to test scores or academic achievement.

Such comments serve as a useful reminder about the means by which teens feel value and worth.

National testing does not capture those qualities in a school that promote confidence, self worth, and resilience in their students. Food for thought when considering how we evaluate schools.

Image by Little Blue Penguin

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