Listening to Children: A critique of a school-student relationship

My article from

Children should be seen but not heard

– 15th Century English Proverb

The old English proverb may have been around since the 15th Century, but just because it’s ‘tradition’ – a word whose meaning is itself unclear – doesn’t mean it’s a ‘tradition’ that should be upheld. Rather, like all other practices, it is something the each and every one of us should consider for ourselves. It essentially calls for children to make themselves presentable, but to keep quiet about their thoughts and opinions. For a lack of a better term, I would say this way of thinking is bollocks; or for our American friends, bullocks. The clearest case-study is the place where we spend almost a quarter of our day; or in the case of UWC AC which is a boarding school, all day; the school.

During my twelve years of education in four separate schools, I have seen a range of different approaches to student inputs in the way the school operates. True enough, student involvement at a primary level has little if any significance or effect. I would be the first to admit that I can’t even remember the issues that were brought up at Student Council while I was in primary school, despite me having represented my class for three of my four years there. Quite simply, the vast majority of students do not have the knowledge and ability to contribute meaningfully to the school’s operation when they are barely eleven. Certainly, having structures such as a Student Council is a hugely beneficial learning experience for students, but the reality of it is that there is little that they can contribute.

The thing that scares me is when this approach is extended into secondary schools. It’s easy to say that we are only one year older, twelve instead of eleven. But that creates a paradox where we will always be only one year older and never reach the imaginary level of mental capacity to take an active part in the school’s decision making process. No transition is ever smooth, and the process of growing up will take time, maturity will certainly not be ascertained overnight, but NONE of that means that we won’t reach the level needed to contribute meaningfully to the school management.

Student Councils are the most commonly cited avenues for student voice, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the only forum. During my time at SIS, I was invited to interview potential new staff members for the posts as head of section, vice-principal and principal. That a student interview panel was even created is a commendable act that is testimony to how much further SIS has gone compared to other educational institutions. Whether our written comments were actually seriously considered is another question. On most occasions, the final decision was in line with our comments. However, I vividly recall one time when we voted heavily against a vice-principal candidate only to find out a few weeks later than he had been selected.

Chinese Sport Schools System

In 2008, our televisions, newspapers and conversations were overwhelmed by the Beijing Olympics. Yet while the spotlights in the Bird’s Nest stadium swirled around Liu Xiang and Yao Ming, they failed to highlight the millions who were once their training partners, the millions who gave up all in pursuit of the unattainable, the millions who devoted their lives and lost everyone. Once again, the world ignored the graveyard of aspiring children, the bubble where all contact with the world is lost, the school that will expel you when you are no longer profitable. Let me tell you the stories of a few young people, described by a New York Times reporter, as being “another cog in China’s sports machine”

It’s a machine that begins with the selection of thousands of children by officials most of whom have never participated in the sports themselves. Some are as young as 4 or 5, all of them are younger than you or me, one of them was Xu Jiamin. She was selected for her long legs, short torso and large hands without being given a choice whether to enter or not. Being tall doesn’t mean you are good at volleyball, being flexible doesn’t signal brilliance at gymnastics and being short doesn’t mean you’re good at table tennis and bad at running. I for one fare terribly at table-tennis but excel at running. The selection process ignores many other potential athletes and disregards our freedom of choice.

And yet, the selected throng of 400,000 are dumped into 3,000 sport schools to train seven hours a day. They practice in rooms lit by one low-voltage bulb and sleep in dormitories that reek of urine and sweat. Imagine that you were instructed to be a gymnast at just six. Multiple times each day, you are required to stretch your legs over 2 blocks in the splits. While your legs begin to tremor, your coach walks over, smiles and hands you a timer set at 30 seconds before setting his 70 kg frame on each of your outstretched limbs in turn. The additional weight is just too much to bear and as the seconds tick, the agony wells up inside each of us, tears begin to flow. It’s an inhumane training method, but that’s not all.