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Many schools would say their students have a voice, but do they really? What about at Whalley Range?

Yes, we had a school council. But was it really representative of the whole school student voice? Councillors were keen elected volunteers, but our canvassing of all our students concerns through them and our feedback mechanisms were certainly not as rigorous as they could be. How real was their power and the say they had, anyway?

Yes, we did surveys, interviews, questionnaires and talked to students about different things at different times but all in a rather ad hoc way. So time for a rethink.

The vision

No longer did we want student voice to be seen as an add on, an extra. We didn’t want it to be tokenism. We wanted to see it as central, a driver for change. Rarely are students involved in their own education. Rather more frequently passive, and we wanted to try to develop the idea of student partnership. Real student voice would mean students needing to be involved in the decision making processes of the whole school. Well that was the vision, the ideal!

Let’s face it, the whole of the secondary education system puts barriers up to student voice – it’s a massive challenge. You want flexibility and fluidity to meet students. But you have to set up special times for meetings and revisiting things can be difficult; it can become a real chore. The sheer size of the student body is daunting.

Being genuinely asked for input can be a shock to students too. They have been stuck on complaints about uniform and jewellery for too long, or think there is going to be a catch! But out of little acorns grow…Get those branches sprouting!

Branch one: Get the backing of the headteacher and the Senior Management Team 

We got the Head to front the launch, laying out the agenda for the whole school.

Branch two: Set a serious agenda  

Consult on student concerns, yes. But also look at School Improvement  priorities and ask for student input into these central areas.

Educate  students to see that they can influence the real business of school –  Teaching and Learning even? 

Our Head kicked off the programme, using feedback from student questionnaires  and key development issues as the focus. To date…lunchtimes, bullying, a  healthier school, Teaching and Learning styles have all come under the student  voice spotlight.

Branch three:  Get the Council meetings on the school calendar and ensure there are  mechanisms for spiralling up and down the communication chain.

We got SMT backing to suspend the whole school timetable for our Citizenship Sessions where student voice activities are the focus. We work in a  cycle – whole school, year council, school council, focus groups, feedback,  whole school…

Branch four: Engage all teaching and learning support staff in delivery

The whole school stops for whole school student voice activities. Lessons are suspended and teachers return to form bases to lead activities with their forms, supported by Year team staff. Collaborative planning from interested members of  SMT and Leadership ensured that activities were accessible.

Delivery needs to be of quality if there is going to be a quality result. We have used our TV station to broadcast input slots for the sessions to the whole school, responding to requests for both more support and greater flexibility by extending coverage of  broadcasts and making activities and sequence optional as long as the student  voice is captured.

Branch five: Ensure that students have the means to articulate their views

We carefully planned staged activities to provide students with the language, context and structure to allow them to understand and explore the  issues. For many of our students depth of engagement and independent  thinking are not yet part of their repertoire.

Branch six: Grow roots 

Make the most of your internal and external partners to keep up your energy and  support you when motivation flags. Our link worker from DEP was an invaluable  source of encouragement, as were colleagues from Manchester/Trafford schools in the project. It was reassuring to discover that the same kinds of tensions and  obstacles were familiar to us all!

Branch seven: Make connections 

For us the Manchester Inclusion Standard, piloted in our school and focussing for assessment on student perception of school realities, preparation for Inspection under the new OFSTED Framework, our Race  Equality Action Plan, our Disability Discrimination Action Plan all demand a commitment to finding out what students think about their experiences of  school – some joined up thinking can cover all bases and drive momentum.

We are using the student voice slot to involve students in national and international  projects, asking them to share their views with students in other countries about  the priorities of our nation’s young people. The slots have also been an  opportunity to promote additional activities such as our Fair Trade shop, and Eco-committee.

Branch eight: Be prepared for the inevitable set backs and work load

Encouraging teachers to move beyond their comfort zone to deliver outside their subject safety net, fears about saving face in the light of student comment, Year 11 submitting a petition questioning the value of student voice activities taking  them out of curriculum time in their exam year (we’d unleashed a student voice beast that won’t always say what we want to hear!), handling all the data and analysing it…were just a few of our challenges.  

But when in doubt we went back to our vision. ‘A real partnership with students’, ‘students involved in the decision making processes of the school’ – these things have got to be worth fighting for! We kept reminding ourselves how crucial it was to create opportunities for participation. It might sound dramatic but we are nurturing the future electorate, the movers and shakers of the future. There is too much at stake for schools to afford to be exam factories.

Valuing the student  voice and reacting to what it says is about developing an awareness that  individuals can contribute to collective change. The seeds of a shift in voter apathy?

Well, we’ve got our oak tree but it’s a sapling yet and will certainly need some TLC…we’re going to need energy and enthusiasm, drive and commitment to feed and water it, delivering on the expectations we have raised and making sure that it produces confident, assertive women who know they have the power to change their lives.

But hey, we’ve got a sapling and that’s a pretty good start!

This work © Oxfam GB, Save the Children UK and UNICEF (UK), 2007. Part of the Developing Citizenship project.

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