What are the legal considerations to the topic of pupil voice within education? Mark Blois discusses

The recent DCSF consultations about whether children and young people should be given the right to independently appeal to independent appeals panels (IAPs) and special educational needs and disability first-tier and upper tribunals (SENDISTs) on decisions of exclusion signifies the re-emergence of an increasingly important issue in educational politics: the topic of ‘pupil voice’.

What is ‘pupil voice’?

The idea of ‘pupil voice’ is to increase the influence of students in the provision of their own education by ensuring that their views are included when schools make key decisions. It appears that the general consensus of academics is that student participation has profound benefits for behaviour and community cohesion; it develops a feeling of responsibility which in turn strengthens a student’s sense of citizenship.

While there are many in education who are not averse to the participation of students in the management of their schools, many others resent the move that such consultation should become a legal requirement.

What current pieces of legislation are relevant to the issue of ‘pupil voice’?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children, article 12, states that children should be free to express their views on issues which concern them. It also states that children should be given the opportunity to be heard in judicial and administrative hearings which will affect them.

The Education Act 2002 required schools to have regard to any guidance given by the secretary of state or National Assembly relating to consultations with pupils about issues which directly affect students. This was extended further in the Education and Skills Act 2008. In the 2008 Act, the governing body of a school must consider any relevant views expressed by students when making certain decisions, albeit taking into account the age and understanding of the students.

Why is Ofsted relevant?

In the assessment criteria adopted by Ofsted to examine schools, considerations have been added to take into account the views of students. The self-evaluation forms (SEF) which teachers are asked to complete for inspectors look for evidence of teachers taking into account the feedback of their students when planning lessons.

Ofsted inspectors also ask pupils for their views about different aspects of school management, to include in their report. Schools are therefore partly assessed by Ofsted according to the levels of pupil involvement. It is therefore implicit that schools are expected to encourage, to a certain extent, the inclusion of students in key decision-making processes.

What are schools currently doing to incorporate students’ views into their strategies and plans?

Many schools have started to include the views of students in management decisions, to varying degrees of ambition. The establishment of student councils, in particular for upper-school or sixth form, is a popular choice. In some schools, teachers are encouraged to ask their students for feedback on their teaching. It has also been reported that one school included students on the interview panel for new members of staff.

On the whole, for now, the concept of amplifying the voice of students remains mostly an academic one. However, the wealth of information, data and studies which share the general consensus that ‘pupil voice’ initiatives should be encouraged would suggest this is an area ripe for further policy initiatives.

What current proposals are being made to extend ‘pupil voice’ initiatives further in law?

It is still early days regarding the Education and Skills Act 2008. Time will tell whether pupil voice will shortly be further explicitly enshrined in law. As yet, no school or governing body has been challenged due to a lack of consultation with students. Legislation does have an impact on the flexibility of a school to determine their own level of student participation. While amplifying the voice of students may work well in one school, this may not be the case in another. It is perhaps best to keep this issue at the level of the implicit, through the assessment criteria of Ofsted, rather than making it explicit in law.

However, in April 2009 consultations were held by the DCSF to consider whether children and young people should have the right to appeal to IAPs and SENDIST tribunals independently of their parents. This would certainly fulfil the UN provision that children be heard in judicial proceedings that would affect them individually. However, this area is certainly controversial. While the proposal is for children aged 11 and over to have this right, some people feel that there should be no age limit and that individual children should be assessed, to see if they are competent enough to appeal. This could mean that children below the age of 11 are able to bring about appeals against exclusions. It has also been mentioned that a similar process could be established to allow children to make admission appeals.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Mark Blois