Are students and student voice involved in strategic decision making at your school? ‘Learning conversations’ at Rivington and Blackrod High School, near Bolton, means that they are, explains Ingrid Cox

Think about your school’s strategic decision-making process. Try drawing it. What does it look like? Who is involved? You will probably have staff meetings, middle management groups and senior leadership teams with some eventual link to the governing body through the governor committees. Now think about the decision-making process for young people within your school. Draw it. Does it mirror the adult decision-making process? Where, if anywhere, does it even link to the adult decision-making process? What did undertaking this baseline exercise mean for Rivington and Blackrod High School, near Bolton, Greater Manchester? Given that the school is federated to Ladybridge High School, with a single governing body, what might be the impact on the total population of learners: adults and young people across the Brook Learning Partnership? This case study tracks some of the developments that are beginning to influence and promote a culture of learning conversations between adults and young people; real conversations about strategic issues that matter to everyone.

Moving forward
Three years ago at the governors’ annual training weekend a small group of young people held a workshop to engage governors in a range of activities that focused upon what voice and participation meant to them. The young people raised awareness of how strongly they felt about being involved in the school’s decision-making process and for that process to be real and not tokenistic. Governors were enthused by what they heard and a small group of them, including three parent governors, met regularly to consider how they could support the schools in moving forwards strategically on this issue.

The parent governors were especially passionate about ensuring they were effective in this role – a role in which they could make a difference to children including their own. They wanted to create a system that supported a real role in real decision making within the schools. School councils in each school were covering certain issues, but in a system where young people did not connect to school senior leadership and governance. They were essentially impotent in collaborative strategic decision making. I do not suggest that previously there had been an intention to exclude young people, but it is only now that an understanding is developing, which acknowledges that the views of young people should have an impact on all areas of the school, including learning and teaching.  So how was and is the status quo challenged and changed? What is the timescale within which real change can occur? I believe that the changes we see within Rivington and Blackrod High School are small steps, but on the right path that organically moves forward with a transformative approach to voice and participation. A number of actions have been moving the culture of both schools towards realising the intellectual and social assets of all their members, especially the young people. The goals are still about raising standards, releasing and realising potential, developing total leadership, establishing systems that support collaboration and power sharing – for adults and young people! ‘Pupil voice’ is a generic term used both nationally and internationally to cover the diversity of young people’s involvement in school and wider community activities but what the Brook Learning Partnership is about is much more than that. If the system only promotes the voice of young people where is the voice of other stakeholders taken into account? It is a small step to rationalise pupil voice into a construct of ‘pupil power’ a concept that clashes with an empowered learning organisation.

The system promoted in the Brook Learning Partnership is about system leadership. In the words of the Innovation Unit’s Just Suppose: ‘it’s about student action teams working with adults to co-construct strategic leadership roles in the deployment and delivery of personalised services for citizens’.

New structures
Two years ago, at Rivington and Blackrod High School, a newly developed model of ‘student senate’ replaced the former school council model with alignment to the ‘staff senate’. Members worked in focus groups, on nine key important school improvement issues. The staff senate consisted of those senior staff whose roles meant they were ‘directors of learning’ (DOLs). Their younger counterparts were known as ‘directors of voice’ (DOVs) and initially were formed from those young people who would have represented their year groups on the school council. DOLs and DOVs were meant to attend joint meetings to discuss their particular focus and then DOLs would connect to the governor committee where issues relating to their focus were relevant.

Twelve months later, at a half-day learning conversation, ‘The Bigger Picture’ was created as young people evaluated the previous year’s activities of the student senate and their collaboration with senior leaders. They noted, ‘We’re all a part of the RBHS jigsaw! We need you to make this jigsaw so we can see the bigger picture! We need as many members as possible!’ They created a logo of a multi-coloured jigsaw with one piece missing. They rightly assessed that more young people and more adults needed to be involved, links to governors needed to be more secure and that advocacy from senior leaders was essential. Young people also began to realise the benefits of understanding wider school organisational change processes and wider national educational issues. A few were already engaged in ‘student voice’ within Bolton and the north-west and were seeing the beginnings of integration under the newly emerging children’s services agenda and the Children’s Trust; issues that many adults were unaware of.

The nine focus areas, originally identified and named by adults were re-branded. The DOVs went into assemblies across the school to talk about new opportunities to engage more young people and at this year’s governor training weekend they were able to jointly present with adults describing the actions to date. They noted the things that had worked:

  • DOVs for every focus group
  • monthly Bigger Picture meeting
  • assemblies delivered by us to all learning groups
  • leadership training and planning day
  • links to wider activity and experiences outside of the school

However, the young people realised that although the structure was in place for them to theoretically engage in the wider strategic decision-making process, they still had concerns about the pace of progress and change. It was at this time that it would have been easy for the adults to assert their authority, but the headteacher recognised that change is a continuum and that he needed to listen to the solutions the young people offered. They addressed the problems with solutions and the governors and senior staff actioned them immediately.

Problems and solutions suggested by young people

Problem Solution
All staff were not on board Staff senate/student senate to meet at least once a term
All students were not on board/communication Highlight achievements using all available means, including ICT
No regular links with governors Student senate item on every full governors’ meeting
Talk but not much action Set achievable aims
Linking everything together Profiling

The nine focus groups were:

  • Your school day (Your timetable and curriculum)
  • How do you want to learn? (Your learning)
  • Happy 2 B Here (Healthy schools work)
  • Getting it Right (Rewards and sanctions)
  • Helping Each Other (Citizenship including charity work)
  • RESPECT (Environment and safety)
  • Into The Future (Technology and Enterprise)
  • Extra! (After-school clubs and enrichment)
  • We all matter (Special skills/G&T, SEN etc)

The fact that the drivers for this work are emerging as both top-down and bottom-up enables credible learning conversations and actions around real issues.

Profiling: making school democracy an ever-open door One of the most recent connections relates to the use of a parent governor’s knowledge of how the Netherlands is involving its young people in decision making processes. The Dutch have abandoned the concept of elected councils and forums as they proved to be elitist, unrepresentative and tend to appeal to a minority of young people who are often the more articulate and higher achievers. Young people’s engagement, participation and consultation is based on a market research approach which offers all young people the opportunity to register their interest in any issue they have some knowledge of, which affects their lives, or they feel strongly about. Our young people have been offered the chance to be profiled and we now have a year-by-year and whole-school breakdown of what issues concern them. More than 1,300 young people have expressed their interest in up to five main issues from a menu of topics that were decided upon by young people. Two clear issues have emerged that will now be tackled by ‘action teams’ who will report back through the student and staff senates. These two issues are uniform and physical environment and spaces. Profiling recognises that no young person can be expected to be interested in, or be able to work on every issue. It works on the principal of democracy as an ‘ever-open door’. In the British system we frequently tend to put a lot of responsibility and pressure on a small group of young people, but the Dutch model avoids a small group having all the power and voice. Young people can dip in and out of the processes, recognising and reflecting changes in their lives in terms of personal development, time commitment and other life pressures and priorities, making it more accessible and less binding to be involved. Once the investigative work has been completed the next step requires the commitment from adults to provide support and quality feedback about the next steps within an agreed timescale. From the student perspective, profiling gives an idea of what everyone wants in the school, not just the staff/student senates. It gets more people on board and engaged, thus promoting active participation and while it is more representative, inclusive and democratic it helps to inform and shape the work of the senate focus groups. Its obvious wider application with parents, staff and the wider community will be explored once the pilot has been completed.

I would like to conclude with one student’s comment: ‘If we all work as a team, not alone, we can make what we want to happen. I think the (student) action teams are a great way to do this as we are bringing all the right people who can make a difference together to do some joint work.’