Tags: Curriculum Manager | Headteacher | School Leadership & Management | Student Voice

We must listen to the pupil voice if pupils are going to feel valued as members of the school community, argues Anne Clarke, Principal of Benton Park School Technology College.

‘Children should be seen and not heard’ is an adage which lasted long beyond the Victorian era. Dickens made it clear that Nicholas Nickleby did not feel a valued member of ‘Dotheboys Hall’ but, when I entered the teaching profession in the 1970s, I did not get the impression that ‘pupils rule OK’, and I do not think my experience was unique. Hopefully, pupils attending mainstream schools nowadays feel they do have a say in their school’s affairs, although practice may vary from school to school.

It is useful to begin exploring this topic by setting the school scene into the national context. The message from the DfES is that every child matters. The Children’s Act of 2004 puts children at the centre of our community. The very name of the act tells us this. In this very important piece of legislation, the onus is firmly placed upon schools to achieve the following five key outcomes for children and young people:

  • be healthy
  • stay safe
  • enjoy and achieve
  • achieve economic well-being
  • make a positive contribution.

In order that pupils can make such a contribution to society, they need to be engaged in the decision-making processes of their schools and community. If this is the directive from central government, then it follows that the climate within schools ought to be ‘pupil friendly’.

Raising the ‘pupil voice’ profile

The message from the DfES is mirrored by that of Ofsted, which has placed even greater importance on seeking the views of pupils. In the inspection framework 2005, Ofsted raised the profile of the ‘pupil voice’. In the self-evaluation forms, school leaders need to illustrate how the views of pupils are taken into account. The following question is asked ‘Can you give examples of action you have taken based on the views of learners, with an evaluation of the effectiveness of what you did?’ Inspectors will seek the views of pupils, even meeting with the school council to see if pupils actively participate in school decision making. The new framework states that ‘Inspectors should take opportunities to talk with groups of pupils, for example year group representatives, the school council or other pupils’ forum.’ Benton Park was inspected in 2004, and the inspectors reported on the views of the pupils even then. Listening to pupils is obviously a feature which has now been accentuated.

What appears to be new is that Ofsted will also ensure that pupils – via the school council – receive a copy of the findings in language which pupils can understand. Ofsted also intends to survey the views of pupils via an online questionnaire to make sure young people’s views are central to the new integrated inspections of children’s services. This is in line with the ‘Children’s Act’, as mentioned above. With regard to schools, Ofsted will ask pupils how well they are doing, if lessons are interesting, and how much say they have in the running of their school, ie the ‘pupil voice’. (TES 23.09.05). There seems to be a real desire to find out how much pupils are consulted about what happens in their schools – and even in their communities. If Ofsted is putting pupils’ views at the centre of the new arrangements, then it is signalling that schools should do the same.

The role of school councils

Many schools would say that they have put pupils at the centre of their schools for a long time and have always listened to the ‘pupil voice’. For these schools, it is the DfES and Ofsted who are only just catching up with their good practice. The school councils’ website www.schoolcouncils.org tells us that ‘almost all secondary and primary schools have a school council, where pupils elect representatives who take their views and work with staff to improve the school’. These bodies are important in allowing pupils to have a say, so that they are empowered and feel they have ownership of what happens in the school. It is also good for the pupils’ self esteem. If, through citizenship, schools ought to be helping pupils to become the responsible citizens of tomorrow, then they need to coach them in the democratic process of discussion and decision-making. This can be done through the work of such groups as the school council.

The school council at Benton Park thrives. Common items on agendas are uniform, toilet facilities, school buses, water fountains, school trips, bike sheds, the school canteen, and charities. I am sure that other schools have similar discussions. We do take action based on views expressed at these meetings. We do not simply pay lip service to the idea. We have listened to pupil concerns and the following improvements have been made. Toilets have been refurbished, canteen facilities have been upgraded, new menus have been introduced, and more school trips have taken place as part of our rewards system. As we prepare for the extended schools initiative, we have asked members of the school council to do the research into breakfast clubs. They have been asked to find out from their peers if there is a demand for such a club and, if so, what form the pupils would like it to take.

Who’s wearing the trousers?

I can give further examples of genuinely giving pupils a voice. Last year, our pupils were full of angst over trousers. The school uniform policy said that pupils should wear grey trousers. The pupils made a deputation to the deputy head asking if they could wear black trousers, claiming that it was difficult to find decent grey trousers. Fashion gurus may tell us that ‘grey is the new black’, but if you are a teenager trying to find grey trousers in a chain store it is not easy. The deputy head explained that governors decided our uniform code, but he was happy for the pupils to select a spokesperson or two to come to talk to the governors’ ‘Pupil Welfare Committee’, put their case forward, and see if the governors would change the uniform list. Two year 10 girls made their presentation, most eloquently, and the governors changed our uniform policy to include black trousers. A victory for the ‘pupil voice’! This might on the surface seem a trivial issue but in the eyes of the pupils it loomed large and it caused confrontation between them and the staff, who challenged them for not complying with the school’s dress code. Confrontation negatively influences the ethos of a school and this must impinge on learning. Pupils learn better in a positive ethos where they feel valued. Giving them a say over issues which are important to them, even if they do not seem huge in the eyes of an adult, will create the positive ethos which promotes learning.

It is also important to involve pupils directly in their learning. We have done work on learning styles to encourage pupils to think about what sort of learners they are. We have done this through the work of Alistair Smith on VAK – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – learners, which is popular in many schools. We also call homework ‘own learning’ because we believe it is up to the pupils to take responsibility for the learning which takes place beyond the school day. It is the responsibility of the staff to set the work but the pupils need to take ownership of this learning.

Weighty issues

We have also involved our pupils in more weighty issues, such as the school’s behaviour code. Two years ago staff asked the leadership group to review its classroom management procedures. Positive behaviour management was flavour of the month in many local schools and our staff wanted Benton Park to adopt such a policy. Once again, governors set the discipline code for the school. We approached this with a two pronged attack. The sixth form came first. We set up a working party of staff and pupils to revise the post-16 code of conduct, but it was the three sixth form students from this working party who presented it to the governors’ sub-committee, who amended their framework for student conduct accordingly. We also felt it was good personal development for the students to have this opportunity to engage with governors. We thought such an experience could be quite daunting, but the students took it in their stride. With the ‘supportive learning framework’, as we call our behaviour code for years 7 to 11, once again we had a working party of staff, but the pupils aired their views through the school council. Their views were incorporated into our ‘supportive learning framework’, which has had a positive impact on the school. Without going into detail, pupils appreciate our new system, which is transparent, open and fair, as long as it is consistently applied. Most importantly, they should feel they have ownership of it as their views were counted. Pupils soon let us know if they feel that it is not, and so they should! Pupils are actively involved in other ways in the school to give them a high profile. We have a year 10 support group who are trained and work under the guidance of staff to help pupils who have suffered a bereavement, or are lonely, or have social problems. Willing sixth formers provide academic mentoring for year 8s. We also have a ‘Health Information Point’ where we provide peer mentoring, with staff advice, on health related issues. Year 7s act as guides when the year 6s visit the school prior to entry. In our Ofsted report of November 2004, the team recognised this work as good practice writing that ‘the school has excellent procedures for the induction of pupils into school which help to ensure smooth transfer from primary schools’. The English department has launched a magazine, in conjunction with the Yorkshire Post, where pupils air their views. It is promoted as being ‘by the pupils, for the pupils’. Every two years we ask pupils to complete ‘the Keele questionnaire’ to obtain their views. When we first did these questionnaires the pupils asked for more ICT facilities. Now that we are a technology college we have been able to go some way towards meeting their request.

Unlike Wackford Squeers, I am more than happy to talk face to face with pupils about their concerns. I would rather hear what youngsters have to say, than let the worries fester and leave the pupils feeling unsupported. Pupils have knocked on my door and asked to speak to me about a miscellany of concerns, including:

  • staffing issues (always need to be treated with caution)
  • ear studs (a recurring theme!)
  • sporting facilities (gone away now that we have a sports hall)
  • collecting for their favourite charities.

I welcome these discussions and feel that the climate has moved a million miles away from the atmosphere I experienced as a pupil. I never had a conversation with my headteacher. However, I think that pupils have to understand that sometimes the answer is ‘no’. Maybe the head will not agree with their desires, or the governing body may not concede to their demands. This can also be a worthwhile learning experience for pupils. One cannot always get the desired outcome, and we have to accept that this sometimes happens, however unpalatable it might be to get a refusal. The important thing is that pupils have the opportunity to speak out and are listened to.

Right direction

I am not suggesting that we, at Benton Park, are ahead of the game here. For instance, I know of schools which use pupil panels to interview candidates when they are making appointments and this gives pupils a very high standing. However, I do think that the climate within my school has changed and that we give increased opportunities for the pupils to have a say. Many examples of this practice have been given and the work has been recognised by outside agencies. This can be evidenced in our Ofsted report when the team said that ‘pupils have very good opportunities to be actively involved in the life of the school and in the decision-making process’ and that ‘these views are taken seriously by staff and governors’.

We are moving in the right direction. We must not forget that the pupils are our main stakeholders, and will feel valued if they are listened to. This should create an ethos of mutual respect within the school and this should impact positively upon learning. We cannot expect pupils to value the learning we ask them to engage in unless we value them as members of the school community. The Victorians may have believed that children should be seen but not heard, but I doubt much learning went on at Dotheboys’ Hall!

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Oct 2005

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