Matthew Savage, assistant headteacher, George Mitchell Community School, and Dr Margaret Wood, senior lecturer, York St John University College, explore the role of student voice in evaluating and then improving the learning experience of students in the classroom

Giving young people a voice and listening to what they have to say is an important part of democratising schools. Using this data for school self-evaluation and to assess school effectiveness makes good sense if schools are to understand school experience through the eyes of young people, rather than reflected through an adult lens.

Indeed, this is echoed by Ofsted in its concern that schools should show how they gather the views of learners, what learners’ views tell them and how this data is used for school improvement planning (Ofsted, 2005). Consulting and involving young people is a key aspect of Every Child Matters (DfES, 2004).

The Common Core (DfES, 2005:6) is built around principles of ‘involving children, young people and carers in service design and delivery and in decisions that affect them’. Taking into account their perspectives and views is central to this.

Adults provide an adult view of classroom experience and it could be argued that this has been based on an unquestioned assumption that ‘the grown-ups know best’. Recognising now that student voice should clearly be heard and valued, the policy agenda is moving towards student involvement in issues that affect them and decisions about how to manage and deal with these issues.

However, the basis of this approach may still be questioned in terms of the real empowerment of young people, if it amounts to no more than involving them in adult-directed policies, which are ultimately determined and ‘owned’ by adults. An alternative approach is policy development ‘by’ and ‘for’ young people, where the young people and adults believe that they can ‘learn their way forward’ together.

The George Mitchell Community School (GMCS) in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which is focus of this article, faces some challenges in terms of the context and needs of its 600 students, 48% of whom are eligible for free school meals. The catchment area from which it draws faces particular issues of disadvantage. The school’s 1999 Ofsted report had highlighted steadily worsening results at Key Stage 4, as well as a need to bring about improvements in the consistent application of school policies and in curriculum continuity. Helen Jeffery, the new headteacher appointed in 2004, set about tackling these issues.

‘Teaching for Learning’ (TfL) was a focus that grew from this agenda. The Ofsted report of 2005 noted significant improvements and drew attention to the Making Learning Better (MLB) approach to student voice as an ‘outstanding feature’ and a mechanism to allow students to articulate factors associated with positive learning.

Central to the MLB approach at GMCS are the learning consultants – students who are trained to carry out regular lesson observations and to offer feedback to teachers on how to make learning better in the classroom. The school has had national media attention focused on this aspect of its work, which has given it a raised profile and created interest from other schools.

Learners ‘take on’ pedagogy

Watkins and Mortimore (1999:3) refer to pedagogy as ‘any conscious activity by one person designed to enhance learning in another’. They acknowledge the importance of taking the role and activities of the learner into account and this appears to chime well with the view of how pedagogy develops at GMCS.

At this school the students were described by senior staff as really driving and ‘taking on’ pedagogy through the MLB strategy. The basis for this claim is the substance of this article in which we hope to set out how learning is enhanced at GMCS by the ‘conscious activity’ of the student learning consultants, whose role is to enhance teacher professional knowledge and classroom practice.

At GMCS, the ‘big passion’ of the headteacher is to ‘get a buzz going about learning’. This sense of a buzz was vividly captured by a senior member of staff who said that at the school ‘the learning bounds around in every direction’. A key strategy to achieve this goal is MLB. Both staff and students are seen as key sources of knowledge about learning, something that is fundamental to the school as a learning community.

Learning at this school is a topic that engages students and staff and is the subject of discussion and reflection. The learning consultants can be seen as staff developers in the sense that they contribute to a shared conversation about learning. Learning also excites the learning consultants and this ‘buzz’ is palpable. Brighouse and Woods (1999:87) note how fundamental and necessary it is that a teaching culture is developed in which:

‘talking frankly and knowledgeably about teaching is acceptable and enlightening… By talking about teaching, teaching staff develop further a shared language about the complexity of teaching and learning and constantly refine and sharpen their practice.’

Young people as learning consultants in MLB play an important part in this ‘refining and sharpening’ of knowledge and understanding about pedagogy and practice through their own evaluations of the quality of the learning experiences and their feedback to staff on the outcomes of this process.

The young people involved in MLB are trained for their role as learning consultants and an important part of this role is to question how effective their lessons have been. The training is therefore in itself a valuable lesson in developing key transferable skills of questioning, problem-solving, critical thinking and observation skills, as well as interpersonal skills, such as giving feedback. They develop the skills of training peers to act as learning consultants at other schools, give presentations about the scheme and through all this they gain in confidence. As one Year 10 learning consultant remarked: ‘We have learned how to talk to teachers on a more professional level.’ Another learning consultant from the same year added ‘… and they listen to us’.

At GMCS students play an important part in the development of professional knowledge about classroom practice. Learning consultants (LCs) are appointed to subject areas, with more experienced LCs becoming lead learning consultants (LLCs).

Any student can apply to become an LC by completing an application form. They are encouraged to do so based on how much they enjoy the subject, as this would seem to give them the strongest motivation to want to improve the way it is taught. Curriculum leaders decide who will be appointed, and this is crucial so that they can work with their appointees productively from the start.

LCs must come from across the age and ability range, in order that they appear in the majority of different classes and lessons. It must be noted that as a model of effective student participation, being an LC is considered to be ‘cool’ and this ‘cool factor’ is crucial.

Training the LCs includes developing their skills of observation and feedback and this training is ongoing to ensure continuous updating of skills and knowledge. The learning consultant receives a copy of the teacher’s lesson plan several days before the class they are to observe and, following the observation, feedback is given to the teacher. The learning consultant’s role is to ask questions of the learning they have experienced.

It could be said that the MLB strategy boils down to two core issues: did all class members enjoy the lesson and did learning happen? The simplicity of this distilled formula for lesson evaluation is perhaps its greatest strength. Whilst standard lesson observation pro formas are useful in their typical level of detail, their superfluity is striking when viewed alongside these two ingredients. Learning? Tick. Fun? Tick.

These criteria are totally inclusive and help to ensure that the entire dialogue is accessible to all – indeed the school was keen from the outset that being a learning consultant should not be the exclusive domain of the more gifted student. Ideally, this inclusivity is inherent within each class, as staff are encouraged to gain immediate feedback at the end of their lessons by asking pupils for their views in response to the question ‘How could that lesson have been better?’ This is powerful as it is instant, direct and provides valuable data for teachers to evaluate their lessons. And, crucially, it should be totally unthreatening, as such a dialogue stems from a mutual interest in, and commitment to, making learning better.

As well as lesson observations, learning consultants:

  • provide training for other students, cascading expertise  and ensuring a constant crop of recruits
  • attend all staff meetings and training, as participants who join in TfL discussions
  • join regular working groups with staff in which they help to forge policy – eg on TfL and homework
  • retain control of all staff appointments until they ‘shortlist’ and pass the final decision to senior staff.

Given the central role LCs have had in writing the TfL policy, they are well placed to feed back to staff on how this agreed policy is being adhered to on the ground.

LCs readily identify the benefits of MLB. These quotes give a feel of their perceptions:

‘Before it (MLB) started, lessons were boring. Science has improved so much. Now teachers ask you about how you think the lesson went’.

‘When you go into a classroom you can see you have made a difference.’

The learning consultants affirm that MLB changes the learning environment and report that their relationship with teachers is good: ‘There’s more respect. They listen.’

A clear benefit is that the impetus for change and development comes from the pupils themselves. LCs are fluent in discussing pedagogical theories: they are excited proponents of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, and have followed with interest the emergence of post-Kolb ‘Accelerated Learning’ cycles. It would be almost impossible to teach at the school and not engage with new ideas. If the LCs are interested in these ideas, it becomes incumbent on staff to engage with such theories too.

So how genuine a ‘voice’ do the students have? The school is keen to avoid tokenistic gestures and to ensure that what has been put in place is based on shared values.

What is convincing is that this is not ‘just another initiative’, but something that has grown out of the success of an earlier pilot in English and that the headteacher confirms is built into school practice: ‘It’s now just what we do… and what’s so pleasing is the way children and staff have run with this’. This is central to TfL policy and represents a new approach to quality assurance in the classroom. But it is also a strategy to achieve quality enhancement by sharing views and explanations of effective teaching for learning. Student voice is the key to this.

MLB is still developing and there is a feeling in the school that it has not yet reached its pinnacle. However, already it can be seen as a stimulus for reconceptualising pedagogy, in terms of students contributing to professional knowledge about teaching and learning and viewing their knowledge as central to enhancing learning and ‘making it happen’.

Making Learning Better is, largely, a question of demystifying the learning process and excising it from detachment in the adult world. It would be hard to find any student, in any school, of any age, ability or background, who does not hold strong opinions about what makes them want to engage with a lesson and what makes them switch off.

MLB is based on a passionately held belief that only by harnessing the views of these very learners can truly personalised learning be guaranteed. The whole personalised learning agenda is perhaps most central of all to the future evolution of secondary education in this country, but how else can you personalise the learning without learning from the person at its core?

By the number of students who plead every week to become a learning consultant themselves, it would appear that pupils agree. MLB has become ‘cool’ in a school where it could so easily have ended up otherwise. Could this be the means by which learning itself becomes ‘cool’ too? Making Learning Better can therefore be seen as a unique and distinctive way in which the principle of ‘personalisation’ is applied to learning at GMCS, where learning from and with the students, as key stakeholders, is so central to the school as a learning organisation.

GMCS has trained a number of schools nationwide over the past year, and is currently in the process of linking with a school in south-west London, which also uses students as lesson observers. Another stage in the MLB journey will involve forging international partnerships. This will bring a novel, global dimension to Teaching for Learning and student voice and, whilst currently in its infancy, it represents an exciting innovation and new direction for Making Learning Better.

  • Brighouse, T and Woods, D (1999) How to Improve Your School. London: Routledge
  • DfES (2004) Every Child Matters: Change for Children in Schools. Nottingham: DfES Publications
  • DfES (2005) Common Core of Skills and Knowledge for the Children’s Workforce. Nottingham: DfES Publications
  • Jeffery, H (2005) Raising achievement at George Mitchell School, Leyton E10: A distributed leadership structure [Online] Available at: http://www.ncsl.org.uk/media/F99/9E/randd-ln-london-challenge-case-study-jeffery.pdf [Accessed 4.8.2006]
  • Ofsted (2005) Every Child Matters. Framework for the inspection of schools in England from September 2005. [Online].London: Office for Standards in Education. Available at www.ofsted.gov.uk [Accessed 19.4.2005]
  • Watkins, C and Mortimore, P (1999) ‘Pedagogy: What Do We Know?’ in Mortimore, P (ed) Understanding Pedagogy and its Impact on Learning. London: Paul Chapman Publishing