Student voice can be a powerful tool in encouraging higher levels of engagement in learning leading to raised achievement. But many schools still have a lot to learn about making effective use of this tool in practice to bring about whole-school improvement. We uncover some of the lessons learned so far.

Engaging the student voice is gathering momentum as a key way to improve teaching and learning and transform schools. As the personalised learning agenda takes root, curriculum managers are realising that finding effective ways to hear and act on the student voice has a vital role to play in achieving this individualised approach to learning.

Why listen?

In our human-rights-focused society, arguably it is the student’s right to take part in decisions and processes that affect their learning. By welcoming their voice in decision-making, schools are reinforcing the social dimension of learning.

Students have changed far more in the last 20 years than schools have. As a result, the school experience can be very alien to pupils when compared to the way they are treated outside of school. Many can become disheartened and disengaged by the feeling that they are being treated as ‘children’, and that education is something that is ‘done to them’ rather than something that they can have control over with a say in what and how they learn. Such a sense of powerlessness can quickly lead to disaffection, which effectively disables schools from carrying out their key purpose: providing a quality education for their pupils. So any action curriculum managers can take to reverse this trend and engage students as equal learning partners should be taken seriously and implemented straight away.

If students feel that their opinions matter in school, that they are regularly consulted on the best way to learn, then they quickly become engaged again in the whole learning process. Schools will find that the views of pupils can make an invaluable contribution to shaping classroom management, teaching and learning, and the whole school environment for the better.

Student voice movement

While there is a move to give students such a voice, progress towards achieving this has been relatively slow. Many schools think that having in place a school council is sufficient. But for so many students, this is seen as tokenism, given that the outcomes of any work the council carries out are often not acted on, or the issues they are allowed to speak out on are on the periphery of what matters to them – uniforms and school meals being very common topics for school council consultations. As Fielding has pointed out, teaching and learning have for too long been seen as forbidden areas for enquiry. When they are on the agenda, then the questions raised are often identified and framed by teachers for teachers (Fielding, 2001).

Overcoming fears

A lot of this reluctance to give student voice a more central place in the school improvement agenda is due to the fear and unease of teachers that allowing pupil opinion to hold sway will alter the power relationships between staff and students and will corrode further their already diminishing sense of professionalism. To help allay these fears, curriculum managers need to ensure that, in their zeal to give students a voice, they do not then develop this at the expense or to the exclusion of the teacher voice. It will also be important to spend time preparing staff to adopt this new approach, via training, for example, and to dispel any fears they may have about ‘giving students more control’.

Right culture, effective systems

For student voice work to be more than just tokenism, curriculum managers need to ensure that the right culture, structure and systems are in place to secure effective whole-school practice in engaging students as partners in learning. They cannot rely on the fervour of one individual advocate – however good their efforts, they will inevitably fizzle out if they have to constantly battle against hostile resistance from other staff. It is vital that the value of student voice work is recognised across the school. This can be achieved by putting in place structures that ensure student voice work is given public status and is built into the whole-school infrastructure so that it has systems-wide impact (Fielding, 2001).

There needs to be measures in place to ensure that pupils feel safe to give their real views, rather than just spout forth what they think the teachers want to hear. Staff need not only to be genuinely interested in hearing what students say, but must also be happy to cross the bridge and actively listen to what they might mean (Fielding, 2001).

At the heart of all student voice work there needs to be a genuine desire to encourage greater freedom of thought and action and a belief that this will engender more creative ways to transform schools into learning spaces where power and responsibility is shared. It should not just be driven by an interest in generating more data to tick boxes to satisfy the performance information-driven culture that the national education policy scene has become. It is no good just collecting the data; schools need to know how then to interpret this to extract meaning that can be used to inform real and positive change to teaching and learning processes.

Schools need to transform to a democratic culture, one where teachers across departments are open to questioning their own practice and value the students’ perspective on how this can be improved.

Impact on teaching and learning

Student voice work has the potential to change the way teachers think about their lessons and to encourage them to work with pupils in new and more effective ways that will lead to improved learning. As recipients of teaching, the students’ perspective on what works best can be invaluable. They need to be seen as equal and vital partners in a dialogue about learning.

Discussing with them issues about teaching and learning helps to improve understanding of what achieves effective learning. Encouraging students to consider how they learn best and to identify any problems related to their learning can help in promoting more effective learning.

From the teacher’s perspective, listening to the views of students provides an invaluable source of evidence of effective learning strategies. They can access pupils’ views on effective teaching styles, resources, assessment and curriculum content. If they then act on this evidence, this shows to the students that they are important players in their own learning.

Language of consultation

Many teachers dismiss the potential use of student voice work because they believe that pupils do not have anything useful to say, or are not able to communicate this effectively. Often such an attitude hides a fear of hearing what they have to say in case it is unpalatable.

Many question whether young people have the right ‘language’ for communicating their feelings, experiences and concerns, because they are looking for it to be articulated in a language that they as adults find socially acceptable. But trying to educate students in using the discourse of education professionals has the potential to distort and weaken the impact of what they have to say. Many would argue that instead pupils simply need advice on the tone and respect with which their voice should be articulated, and instead of teaching them their language, teachers should be learning the language of the students.

Certainly, it is important to ensure students have the skills to articulate their views effectively, but this does not mean shaping the way they express themselves – it is important to let their unique voice come through untamed. Research on the use of student voice has constantly affirmed the maturity of pupil responses and that they value being treated more like equals, and take seriously the opportunity to have their say to make a difference in the way the school operates. If given the right opportunity, they will speak responsibly, intelligibly and usefully (Bragg, 2001) about issues that can reveal improvements that are possible in teaching and learning.

To ensure quality dialogue, it is important to ensure that both pupils and teachers are well prepared for the student voice session. They should have negotiated between them the format, purpose, outcome and boundaries of the session beforehand. This includes having strategies in place to ensure that destructive, confrontational comments are avoided.

Consultation methods

There are a range of ways to consult – examples are given in the box right. Students can be more receptive to certain types than others. A study by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) found that in schools not used to consultation, students were more anxious about being interviewed by staff known to them (Hannam, 2004). But this was much less of a problem for schools where students had already had experience of working as researchers with teachers on teaching and learning issues. They preferred to be interviewed by other students.

Students found small mixed-gender group interviews or focus groups the easiest to take part in, and believed that this provided better data than individual or pair interviews or whole-class discussions. Pupils were less enthusiastic about questionnaires than interviews, particularly if they had no say in the design and choice of questions.

Curriculum managers should bear such research findings in mind as well as choose carefully which type of consultation to use and when, as certain ones are more appropriate for particular issues you are seeking views on. But most importantly, they will need to find what works best for the students in their school.

Data analysis

Experience so far has also shown that it is important for pupils to be involved in the data analysis. This prevents teachers, however unconsciously, from selecting only those comments and feedback that they want to hear or feel most comfortable with, and ensure that the results of the consultation have more chance genuinely of being heard and taken on board. It will also help to preserve the integrity in the student voices to ensure that staff understand the issues that are most important to the pupils.

Curriculum managers need to ensure there are systems and admin support mechanisms in place to help with data processing and analysis – such tasks nearly always take more time than anticipated, particularly where there are a lot of freestyle answers.

Factors for success

Although student voice work is still in its infancy, research so far has revealed factors that are more likely to ensure such initiatives are a success. As students in the QCA study revealed (Hannam, 2004), they would only take the process seriously if the issues were important to them, the language used was familiar and intelligible and the reasons for doing it were persuasive. Having enough time to complete any consultation exercise was seen as crucial, as was the need to provide the right space and environment, which should be not too formal, or too informal – the classroom was ruled out by all.

For student voice work to succeed, it is vital that schools act on what is heard so that the students can see the purpose of engaging in this way in the learning design process.

Students also need to be assured of confidentiality – those taking part in the QCA study (Hannam, 2004) felt strongly that their opinions should not be attributable to them personally if they contained any hint of criticism or comments about specific departments or staff. Any sense that confidentiality was breached could provoke great resentment and future silence.

Power to improve

The student voice movement has the potential to transform teaching and learning for the better – such an exciting and powerful opportunity to do this should not be ignored. But it is vital that the right culture is in place to ensure that the voice is given a chance to speak freely and that what is heard is listened to objectively and sincerely and then acted on to ensure that the potential for making monumental improvements is realised.

The student voice should not be listened to half-heartedly and interpreted in a way that confirms what you already think, or allows you to give legitimacy to the way you already do things. Those who view the student voice as something just to be seen to engage with as a token nod to letting them have a minor say in the running of the school will be missing a fundamental opportunity to bring about long-lasting and significant advances to teaching and learning.

Factors for success

  • A desire among staff to hear what students have to say
  • Consulting on topics that are not trivial
  • Encouraging teachers to see the importance of hearing the student voice by presenting evidence of the positive outcomes
  • Explaining clearly the purpose of the consultation to the pupils
  • Allowing enough time and space for consultation to happen
  • Selecting the method of consultation carefully to ensure it is most appropriate for the purpose
  • Ensuring students know exactly what will happen to the data
  • Making it clear to pupils that expressing their honest opinions will not disadvantage them — making them feel safe to say what they really think
  • Ensuring that students are told the outcomes of the consultation

Types of consultation

  • Learning logs
  • Networked learning study visits
  • Questionnaires
  • Focus groups
  • Individual interviews
  • Small-group interviews
  • Surveys
  • Students-as-researchers
  • Student evaluation teams conducting classroom observations, and then giving feedback to staff
  • Student representatives (school council, management team, staff appointment panels, for example)
  • Intervisitations between schools

References

Bragg, S. (2001) ‘Taking a joke: learning from the voices that we don’t want to hear’, Forum, vol 43, no 2

Fielding, M. (2001) ‘Beyond the rhetoric of student voice: new departures or new constraints in the transformation of 21st century schooling?’, Forum, vol 43, no 2

Hannam, D. (2004) Involving young people in identifying ways of gathering their views on the curriculum, QCA

Useful websites

www.schoolcouncils.org Schools Council UK — aims to help schools to develop into caring communities by helping pupils to become partners in their own education, to make a positive contribution to the school environment and ethos

www.sussex.ac.uk/education/1-4-22.html  – The Centre for Educational Innovation — provides a forum for innovative work with schools on leadership, pupil-centred learning and student voice

www.bsip.net/studentvoice.shtml – Bedfordshire Schools Improvement Partnership — supports the involvement of learners and their active participation in the life of their school via such initiatives as Students as Learning Partners (a research programme whereby students observe lessons and give feedback to work collaboratively as part of the learning process), Students as Researchers, Student Leadership and Facilitation

www.studentvoice.co.uk – English Secondary Students’ Association — promotes the benefits of young people becoming part of the decision-making process that affects their school lives, and provides individual students with support for voicing their views and opinions.

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