Teacher and trainer Michelle McGrath argues that the emphasis on students as partners in their learning is a fundamental challenge to the current model of teaching and will require significant shifts in attitudes at all levels in schools

2020 Vision, the report by the review group chaired by Christine Gilbert, recommends that a personalised approach to teaching and learning would:

  • treat students as partners in their learning
  • listen to what they think about the services they receive (see below).

What the Gilbert review said:
Reflective schools view ‘pupil voice’ as far more than establishing a pupil council. They are engaging pupils actively in shaping learning and teaching, for example, by:

  • using pupils as learning resources for one another, helping their peers to learn and develop
  • inviting pupils to work with teachers in curriculum teams, to review schemes of work and develop plans for improving learning and teaching
  • asking pupils to provide feedback on particular lessons, either through general surveys or by training them as observers of lessons
  • conducting regular surveys on the quality of the school experience and how it could be improved, sharing the results with all pupils.

2020 Vision, p21 The implementation of such proposals could revolutionise teaching and learning as we know it. The suggestion is that we fundamentally alter the existing power balance between teachers and students in a school. Such a move would initiate changes likely to go far beyond the benefits in children and young people taking greater responsibility for their learning.

New model

The prevailing model for the kind of power relationship that should appertain between teacher and student is continuously shifting. We have come a long way from a framework that characterised the relationship between teachers and pupils as inherently intimidatory. However, the assumption that teachers should be automatically feared and respected by pupils has not been replaced. The onus has fallen on individual teachers to forge their own style of authority. There has been a vacuum, a lack of a clear, agreed model of power relationships towards which teachers can aspire. The concept of partnership is a very positive replacement.


The dangers of poor relationships between teachers and students are all too clear. Many hate a subject because of the teacher, as others find they suddenly start to like, and excel in, a subject because of the teacher. The ways in which teachers enable students to feel about the subject, their peers, their abilities and themselves had a major impact on their motivation, enjoyment and achievement. The significance of relationships and the underlying power relations is not always acknowledged explicitly. However, it is the medium through which much teaching and learning takes place. Ignoring this aspect, or not getting it ‘good enough’, can have serious consequences: if students feel unfairly treated, angry after an interchange or not listened to by those who represent education, some will inevitably reject education and learning itself. The resulting stress on teaching staff should not be underestimated.

The meaning of partnership

But what exactly does partnership with students mean? How can it be achieved and maintained? Here lies the biggest potential difficulty with this otherwise positive approach. It requires particular qualities, understanding and skills to develop a successful working partnership with just one person. Developing partnerships with 30 or so individuals and the class group is an extremely complex task requiring an even greater degree of self-awareness and skill at communicating. There is no reason why teachers should possess these interpersonal skills any more than other sections of the population. Indeed, the rationale behind the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme is that these affective skills are not necessarily absorbed as we grow up, but also need to be explicitly taught. The implication of this, of course, is that not all adults today will have developed them adequately. Thus, having to work in partnership and listen to students could be perceived and experienced as yet another unreasonable demand on an already overburdened profession, unless, of course, suitable training is available. In many ways, the success of partnership working will to a considerable degree depend upon the capacity of teachers to relate.


The Centre for Parents and Child Support (CPCS) has recently developed training to enable teachers to work in partnership with young people. The aim is to enable teachers to develop the generic communication skills and understanding to work with classes and individuals in partnership, including the hard to reach, as well as with parents and other adults in the school. Supported by appropriate training, it will be far easier to work successfully in partnership; maybe then, treating students as partners in their learning will result in unexpected gains for all.

The CPCS was established to help child and family services communicate more effectively with the people they serve. www.cpcs.org.uk