The British Film Institute contains many gems but few film reels rival the stunning cinematography of Paul Rotha’s 1935 documentary, ‘Shipyard’. Shot in Barrow-in-Furness, it is a magisterially elegant account of the construction of RMS. Orion. The workers at the Vickers-Armstrongs yard make their way to work in carefully choreographed scenes. Welders, riveters and boilermakers bustle along the busy streets. In the hands of Rotha and his accomplished cameraman, the brilliant Austrian emigrant, Wolfgang Suschitzky (1912-2016), the physical grind of hard labour became a thing of exquisite beauty. Soviet-style editorial techniques lend a Stakhanovite aesthetic to the film and the workers are little more than iconic figures that exemplify the themes explored by Rotha. They are devoid of their humanity and, crucially, not afforded a voice. We learn almost nothing about their lives and the commentary is provided by the great liberal A J Cummings who was editor of the London News Chronicle. His clipped upper-class stentorian tones and the soaring strings of the pleasing orchestral score lends a ‘top down’ observational feeling to the documentary. The lived experiences of the workers and their families appear to count for nothing.
Of course, documentary making was in its infancy and Rotha’s stylised approach was very much of its time. Following the depression of the early 1930s, this film was designed to celebrate industrial efficiency and the relentless march of modernity. Another Rotha film from 1935, ‘The Face of Britain’ was sponsored by the Central Electricity Board and contained pleasing shots of sleek control panels inside a new power station. It celebrated, with great pomp, the formation of the newly created National Grid. For all of its socialist pretensions, the people appearing in the film are as mute as the shiny new pylons stretching across the English countryside. It is the case that authoritative and patriarchal voices give some of these early documentaries the feel of observational wildlife programmes. The working classes were a curiosity to be studied in their natural habitat but they were certainly not allowed to express themselves.
Housing Problems (also released in 1935) adopts a very different approach. Produced by the Realist Film Unit for the British Commercial Gas Association, the film explores the poor living conditions experienced by those living in the slums of East Stepney. The film is a hymn of praise for the new social housing projects that sprung up in London during the pre-war period. Concrete walls and slick models of utopian suburban bliss dominate the film but so too do the cockney voices of those for whom the new dwellings were intended. In an age of reality television and independent film-making, it hardly seems revolutionary to afford ordinary people a voice but those Londoners who contributed to Housing Problems were real pioneers.
When I was at School, it never occurred to me that members of staff would be unduly interested in what we had to say about the School itself. They were not patiently waiting for us to cast our critical eye over the state of the food or the amount of homework we were set. I doubt the headmaster would have had any real understanding of issues related to equality, diversity and inclusion. It would have seemed impertinent to have challenged the School’s green credentials or the quality of IT provision in the library. The dialogue that we take for granted with our children here at Rossall was unheard of in the eighties and nineties. It was not quite a case of the Victorian maxim of being ‘seen and not heard’ but I can confidently say that no one was that interested in soliciting our views on anything that mattered. I never completed an attitudinal survey, never attended a student council meeting and shared no opinion of any import with my form tutor or head of year. I did not go to a repressive school but the notion that a school would endeavour to respond positively to feedback from pupils was just not a thing.
Here at Rossall, we take student voice incredibly seriously and our children have an active input into the future strategic direction of the School. They help us to appoint new staff by taking part in the interview procedure, giving tours of the campus and providing feedback on lessons. They are members of various committees such as the boarding committee and food and catering committee – both of which provide invaluable feedback on these incredibly important areas of life. All of our tutor groups provide class representatives for the Student Council. This meets regularly to discuss whole school issues. Groups such as the Diversity Society and the International Society plan events to raise awareness of social issues. Our Sixth Formers decide which charities they wish to support and our monitors meet with Nick Crombie every week. They serve as an important sounding board for new ideas. Their perspective is very important to us and their collective wisdom lends them a powerful voice within our community.
Periodically, we ask children to complete attitudinal surveys on almost every aspect of their lives here at Rossall. We want to learn from their experiences in the classroom and we want to adapt and evolve in response to their observations and suggestions. Of course, we cannot say ‘yes’ to everything but if the answer is ‘no’ or ‘not yet’ then our children deserve to understand why we have reached that conclusion. Debate is healthy and intergenerational discussions about thorny topics like uniform and appearance tend to be lively but cheerily respectful. Ultimately, we want our children to feel invested in our community and to care about the decisions that we make. We do not want them to have non-speaking parts in a Paul Rotha documentary; we want to hear both their individual and collective voices.
Speaking up is empowering and it is our responsibility to encourage our children to be self-confident and to recognise their ability to achieve meaningful change. Schools which do not listen attentively to their children are missing one of the key purposes of a meaningful education and children who attend such schools are more likely to be subjugated by future partners or employers. Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of cockpit culture explores the role of pilot ‘deference’ in the Korean Air Flight 801 crash. The captain made the decision to land the plane despite the junior officer challenging his decision. In high power distance cultures mistakes happen due to an excess of deference and a lack of challenge. Counterintuitively, Gladwell argues that planes are safer when the pilot with the lesser experience is in charge.
At Rossall, we believe that, in many respects, our children’s voices are the most important voices in the School. It is unthinkable to imagine that we would not want to listen to their opinions.
Headmaster of Rossall School