Student Voice: Learning to Listen to a Neglected Constituency
The interview was nearly complete. The candidate had interviewed well, even though he had seemed rather tense when he first arrived. We assumed that an interview with the Head, Deputy Head and Chair of Governors would naturally make him nervous.
‘Any questions that you would like to ask us?’ I asked, trying to sound as reassuring as possible.
‘No,’ he replied in relieved tones, ‘this interview has been so much easier than my last one with your pupils!’
Exchanges such as this have become increasingly common since 2001 when we first began to involve members of the school council in the interviewing of staff. Rather than ask interviewees to teach a sample lesson, a process which we had found to be artificial and often misleading, applicants are asked to spend half an hour being interviewed by members of the school council drawn from Years 7-13. The panel is chaired on an alternating basis amongst the year groups. Hence candidates have sometimes been surprised to find a panel containing Y12 and Y13 students being chaired by a student from Years 7 or 8.
Each council member asks two questions to the candidate and there is then an opportunity for the candidate to ask the students questions. The student questions are checked beforehand by the Deputy Head to ensure suitability and to avoid duplication. Questions have been challenging and thoughtful, for example:
“Why would I enjoy being in your lessons?”
‘Would you be able to keep good discipline?’
‘I’ve always found your subject hard. How would you help me?’
There have also been occasions when student questions have arrived from the direction of ‘left field’:
‘If you were a fish, which one would you be and why?’
‘Who is your favourite Mr Man and why?’
The chair of the panel then feeds back to members of SMT before they interview the candidate, also making a recommendation about who should be appointed.
Whilst students only make a recommendation to the final interviewing panel, to date their comments have been extremely accurate, and in almost every case their nominee has been the person finally appointed. Feedback from interviewees has been extremely positive, and many have commented that this stage of the interview process provides the clearest insight into the culture of the school. Over the past four years students have taken a role in interviewing for more than forty different teaching and non-teaching posts within the school.
STUDENT VOICE AND INNER SCHOOL VARIATION
This involvement of students has encouraged the school to involve them in a range of issues which student councils might not ordinarily be consulted on. When the school began a project with the NCSL on reducing inner school variation, we felt very strongly that we should build upon our early experiments in student democracy in order to give students a role in this important project. Our model for reducing variation involved pairing groups of departments and asking them to work together and share good practice. Students were asked to contribute to this by suggesting three things that each departmental pairing could learn from one another. Our early fears that students would provide only negative feedback proved to be entirely groundless. Instead they demonstrated a remarkably clear perception of the good practice in teaching and learning that each department could take from one another, as illustrated by the example below:
Three things that History could learn from Geography:
- More practical work
- More computer projects
- More project work (presentations, etc.)
Three things that Geography could learn from History:
- More discussions
- More case studies
- Greater use of information videos
Three things that Science could learn from English:
- Make use of drama and other creative activities
- Use of projects based around ICT
- Use the interactive whiteboard in a more imaginative way
Three things that English could learn from Science:
- Develop projects based around practical activities
- Group investigations (we like doing the ‘Fat Pigeon’ test in Science)
- More opportunities for group discussion
Each department was presented with these findings and asked to discuss them. Observations around the school have shown them to have a significant impact upon practice within the classroom. I was both surprised and impressed to find our Head of Science concluding a strong lesson exploring the physical properties of outer space by asking the class to ‘write a poem about space’. Our early experiments in this area suggest that there is a significant resource of constructive feedback from students that all of us in education need to do more to tap into.
STUDENT DEMOCRACY AND THE GOVERNING BODY
The governing body of the school has been anxious to support the growing strength of student democracy within the school. In order to demonstrate their commitment to listening to the voice of students, the deputy chair of governors has for the past four years attended the bi-weekly meetings of the student council. As well as representing student views at governing body discussions, he has also arranged for the chair of the student council to be a student governor, having observation status on the governing body. He is able to cover key issues that the council has been discussing, as well as issues that they wish to bring directly to the attention of the governing body. Through this process the views of students have begun to shape aspects of the school development plan, both in terms of capital spend (for example a student proposal to redesign part of the school in order to provide a quiet area to sit and talk) and teaching and learning (the departmental partnership scheme described above is now our key ‘engine’ for school improvement). Hence rather than devising projects and then asking pupils what they think about them, we have found that the growth of student democracy has increasingly led to pupils shaping an agenda that senior leaders and governors then respond to. In a very real sense, the school’s SDP is a document that is significantly shaped by the student themselves.
STUDENT IMPACT ON TEACHING AND LEARNING
There are currently underway a number of initiatives where students are having a significant impact on teaching and learning. Firstly, students have been asked to consider those strategies used by staff that are effective as a means to discipline students and those that are not. From this, strategies that have been identified as successful include:
- The “death stare”
- Teaching from a position beside the more disruptive
- Having information about students activities in other classes
- Use of humour
Those that are unsuccessful include:
- Inability to recall students names
These finding have been feedback to staff as past of ongoing work within the school on effective classroom management.
A second initiative includes observation of staff by students. This is done on a voluntary basis both by staff and students. Students observe in groups of two and can discuss feedback with the Head and or Deputy before feeding back to the staff member if they feel the need. The lesson observation form has been adapted and students given training before taking part. Feedback has been incisive and very effective. Student observers are able to observe behavioural norms as students do not react in the same way to their presence as they would for teacher observers.
A further initiative has been to include a student council representative on the schools academic strategy group. Members of this group include faculty leaders who drive forward curriculum changes. Having student representation on this has enabled the ongoing development of a curriculum that meets the needs of our students. Changes as a result of this include the introduction of GCSE Italian and Spanish conversation. Other provision is under review to meet students’ requests for a personalised curriculum.
The role of Student voice within the school is constantly evolving and developing. Future plans include:
Attendance at one in four senior leadership team meetings
Working with us to complete the Every Child Matters section of the SEF
Developing a student behaviour panel to interview students causing discipline issues
We feel that we still have a huge amount to learn from the voice of students. The more work that we do in this area, the clearer it is to us that student voice, whether it be in interviewing staff, providing feedback on lessons or helping to shape the strategic direction of the school, is a major resource that we neglect at our peril.
Over the past thirty years central government has invested huge resources into measuring the differences between schools. Over the next few years the DFES will pour hundreds of millions into a new programme of School Improvement Partners. However, at present the education system is neglecting the best school improvement partners that we have: the students themselves. If we spent just a fraction of our resources on improving the way in which we listen to students, the impact upon the education system in the UK could be more profound than any school improvement project that we have yet seen.