The book says the key to good relationships is the creation of mutual recognition between teachers and children.

Relations between teachers and their pupils need to be rethought, moving beyond behaviour management into something more reciprocal, an expert says.

A new book outlines the importance of teachers giving appropriate weight to pupil’s feelings of agency and allowing them to take ownership of their education.

Existing democratic structures in schools such as student councils are important but are not sufficient on their own to make pupils feel as if their views are represented.

The book says teachers should let go of the notion pupils are entirely dependent on adults. Key to good relationships is the creation of mutual recognition between teachers and children.

Dr Thomas Ralph carried out research in a comprehensive school in a council estate in the South of England which was persistently at the bottom of local school league tables due to its students’ GCSE performance. It was known locally as a failing school and struggled to fill its quota of school places because the majority of parents endeavour to send their children elsewhere.

Dr Ralph spent time at the school speaking to children and witnessing teaching and compared the experience of pupils separated into two groups to study vocational or mainstream subjects.

He found the more informal ways teachers interacted – successfully – with the vocational group demonstrated the importance of positive, caring relationships, particularly on vulnerable, disaffected young people. Outside of the vocational group there was a far greater degree of conflict between the teachers and their pupils.

Dr Ralph will be discussing the book at an event at Bath Spa University on Thursday, 30 April.

Children who took part in the research said they would have preferred a blurring of the boundaries in both space and time between school and the rest of their lives. The book recommends teachers act to demonstrate that they trust children, and a curriculum with stronger links to pupils’ imagined future, which doesn’t simply build towards high-stakes assessments.

Dr Ralph said: “I saw how the dearth of an effective student voice meant that children’s frustration could find no means of expression. Although there were effective relationships in the vocational group these were undermined and delegitimised by the school as a whole.

“Bad behaviour is not simply mindless transgression of imposed rules. It can be tackled by ensuring power in school is shared between school authorities and the students attending school. By treating young people as emergent adults with responsibility for their own lives and engaging them productively with the running of schools, it is likely that they would feel a greater sense of ownership over their education and connect with it more positively.”

Children said they felt estranged from teachers because they were from different backgrounds, and because they felt the school operated in the interests of the teachers. Dr Ralph observed this led to a total lack of trust between students and teachers in the mainstream groups. Exacerbating this was the suppression of their voice in front of their parents, which resulted in them being made to look foolish.

Dr Ralph said: “The failure of formal student voice processes acted to further disengage the students from school, they felt the school was not run in their interests. Effective voice depends on relationships based on mutual recognition and cannot be based on simple representation. The students in the study understood that teachers had something to offer them, but for this to be effective it required them to be heard on all levels. In the absence of this they resisted aspects of the education process to be heard.

“The existence of the student council in the school paid lip service to the notion of voice but pupils said they thought whatever the leadership of the school wished to happen, happened. They recognised that the staff were responsible for managing the school but also felt that they were the ones who it should be run in the interests of and therefore they should have a say in its decision-making processes.”