'Listen to pupil voice – your school will be better for it'

Empowering young people to have a real say in how things are done can lead to tangible improvements in all aspects of school life, but it requires a big commitment and brave teachers, finds Henry Hepburn
12th April 2019, 12:03am
Give Pupils A Voice & Reap The Benefits
Henry Hepburn


'Listen to pupil voice – your school will be better for it'


The man strides in with a bulging rubbish bag and the pupils in the room feel his glare on them. He proceeds to dump the contents: a prodigious amount of litter collected from around the neighbourhood. His point has been made.

The message - not an uncommon one at local community group meetings - was this: pupils at the Royal High School were ruining the area by blithely discarding their lunchtime detritus, leaving an older and more responsible generation to pick up after them. And, as pupils were attending this particular meeting, the man decided it was time to make that point in an unconventional but memorable way.

Pauline Walker, headteacher at the Edinburgh school, recalls that community groups such as the local Neighbourhood Watch used to be "very anti-young person"; now, however, all that has changed.

"They love them now - I get regular communication saying how wonderful [the pupils] are," Walker says. Pupils have been taking active roles in community groups and changing stubborn perceptions about the young. They explain, for example, that litter upsets most young people just as much as older people, and prove this by litter-picking when there is a spike in the amount of rubbish strewn around.

This is just one small but vivid example of how the concept of "pupil voice" (or student voice) has been changing the role of young people in school and how they are perceived. The idea is to empower pupils to speak up, and shape school and community life, rather than treating them as the passive recipients of an education that more traditional models have demanded.

Katie Hepburn, who is in S6 at Royal High, says there is a "massive difference in how pupil voice has come along" since she was in S1. Being part of the pupil council, for example, used to be something that was useful to include in your personal statement if you were applying to university. But, aside from that, pupils did not feel that it achieved much.

Fellow S6 pupil Holly Davis - who, like Katie, plans to go into medicine - agrees that there has been a big change. She says there used to be a strong culture among pupils that you kept schtum in class, and that you did not place yourself in the firing line by putting your hand up.

"What's changed so much is that we're actually getting a response to what's been suggested [by pupils], and that's made such a difference: even if we can't get what we want, we've been heard," Holly explains.

As their headteacher says: "There's no point in staff going off into a wee corner or a huddle to solve the problems. We need the young people there as well, so that they can influence the change."

Pupil voice is not a new phenomenon. Much of its impetus stems from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has shaped the idea of school values underpinned by children's rights and was ratified by the UK government in 1991.

Some experts have complained of slow progress, however. In an interview with Tes Scotland in 2017, outgoing children's commissioner Tam Baillie said his biggest frustration was over pupil voice, and that it was often expressed in only the most tokenistic way in schools, rarely influencing anything of consequence.

Ambassadors for change

Katie and Holly are "mental health ambassadors" at Royal High, and both say this is an area where pupil voice really has changed things profoundly. They recall, early in their time at the school, being shown a video about bipolar disorder: information about mental health focused on the more extreme end and failed to convey that "mental health" was something everyone had.

Pupils subsequently called for staff to receive training and now almost all staff are coached in mental health first aid. Meanwhile, mental health ambassadors, such as Katie and Holly, deliver lessons to S2 pupils in a five-week block, providing the basics and underlining that mental health is every bit as important as physical health.

"We sort of picture ourselves in our schools when younger and what would have helped us," says Katie.

Another idea from pupils started in recent weeks: a support line that pupils can text if they are worried about something. Walker says this has helped to identify issues among the children - usually the younger ones - that would never have been picked up before.

"It's a real difference from five years ago, when we would put something in that we thought [pupils] needed," Walker adds. Rather than working with pupils on a project, she recalls, "we did it to them".

Pupil voice has a patchy history in schools, however. In Tes articles in recent years, some teachers have reported that it is used as a Trojan horse by senior management teams, with selective use of feedback from pupils justifying pet projects.

Even teachers who are supportive of pupil voice in theory have questioned whether, after being filtered through school systems, it remains authentically the voice of young people. And there have been particular concerns about using this feedback to guide teaching practice, with some pointing out that what pupils say they enjoy in class does not necessarily overlap with what helps them to learn effectively.

However, when the Welsh schools inspectorate, Estyn, published Pupil Participation: a best practice guide in 2016, it identified wide-ranging benefits from giving pupils a bigger say.

The report finds that "strong pupil participation can support school improvement by helping the school to identify future priorities and make more informed decisions on wellbeing, learning experiences and the quality of teaching". This level of involvement also helps pupils to hone "valuable personal and social skills, such as listening skills and working with others".

A 2014 report from the Cambridge Primary Review Trust, based at the University of York, shows the pitfalls of handling pupil voice poorly. It finds that the way schools claim they listen to pupils tend to involve "limited aspects of school life".

The report - titled Children, their Voices and their Experiences of School: what does the evidence tell us? - states: "We need to move beyond this narrow vision of listening to pupils, and enable the participation of pupils in a range of issues." It calls for a genuine "reconceptualisation of the roles of pupils and teachers", which should "pervade life inside as well as outside the classroom". The report also points to the elephant in the room: how will teachers react if pupil voice entails children passing comment on their teaching?

"For some teachers, holding a position of power and authority relative to pupils may have been a significant part of their teacher identity for many years," it warns. School leaders, then, must be "sensitive to teachers' needs and support them as they adjust their practices and start to position pupils as having the potential to offer insights into how improvements can be made".

At Royal High, Walker is well aware of such sensitivities, and recalls staff having "robust values-based discussions" about pupils' input into teaching practice. Now, she says, the idea is "embedded" and uncontroversial. "We're not asking [pupils] to correct their teaching, we're asking them to tell us about how they are learning, how what we are giving them works for them."

Academically, the school attributes an improvement in the standard of essays and other writing to the confidence pupils have gained from having a stronger voice.

Dominic Forbes, a modern studies teacher who is Royal High's pupil voice coordinator, says young people are also less timid and more articulate in class: "In the past, they'd say, 'I don't get it'. Now they'll tell you how they think you can best help them."

Doing things differently

The feedback has led to some big changes in teachers' approaches at Royal High. Now, for example, they must allow at least 48 hours for homework or a week for longer pieces of work. This was in response to concerns that some pupils - for example, young carers or those attending sports coaching in the evenings - would struggle when given assignments in the afternoon that had to be completed by the next morning.

Careers education, too, has "completely changed", says Walker, with the school connecting to a wider range of businesses and focusing more on entrepreneurial skills.

Behaviour rules, meanwhile, have become more standardised, since it became clear that S1 pupils were struggling to adapt to the idiosyncracies of 17 teachers after having only one at primary school. In one class, it might be fine for them to turn around and ask a friend a question, for example, while in another, the teacher would tell them off. Now, rules are applied consistently: everyone knows phones must stay in bags at all times and the iPads issued to each pupil must remain face down until they are told otherwise.

However, the Cambridge Primary Review report cautions that increasing levels of pupil participation could become a burden, unless schools "find ways of helping pupils understand the significance of some of the decisions they make in terms of the wider, long-term implications, while simultaneously not placing undue pressure on them".

It also warns about the "marketisation" of pupil voice, with private companies liable to promote generic surveys and questionnaires that lead to "a depersonalised approach, [which] will not elicit depth and understanding of individual experiences".

At Royal High, though, staff and pupils point to myriad achievements driven by pupils. There have been quick wins, such as new water fountains, safety procedures in car parks and new batteries for clocks - because some pupils were anxious about the clocks' unreliability and whether this might make them late for the next class.

"There are things that, as staff, we wouldn't really notice - clocks were a really big thing for some pupils," says Forbes. Similarly, staggered lunchtimes have been introduced and the school's one-way system has been amended. This had seemed fine to teachers from their vantage point in a single classroom, but pupils, who were used to navigating the busy corridors, told a different story.

Suggestions can be placed in a "drop box" (S6s are also developing a drop-box app). But, these days, Walker says pupils - even the youngest ones - are much more likely to simply knock on her door or even send her suggestions by email.

Other changes driven by pupils include free sanitary products, changes to seating plans, improved disabled access and some young people - including autistic pupils - being allowed to arrive in class five minutes early.

"It's little tweaks that we would never have considered as staff that make a difference to the young people," says Walker.

Results can come fast: when some pupils asked to learn the sport of fencing in school, a depute head immediately emailed an Active Schools coordinator and set the new activity in motion. But that is not always the case, and staff encourage pupils to divide their requests into short-, medium-and long-term ambitions. S6 pupils have requested a common room, for example, but Walker says there isn't space and she has had to contend with deep disappointment. Similarly, pupils have requested a wider range of learning paths - including better college links and apprenticeships - but this will take time.

The school aims to amplify the voice of each of its 1,200-plus pupils. In the summer term last year, Walker and Forbes took 100 pupils at a time, in two-hour sessions spread over four days, and asked them for potential improvements to the school. The aim is for this to be an annual process. Over the course of the year, each pupil will also get a one-to-one meeting with a senior member of staff.

Meanwhile, the election of the school captain and other leadership roles is more democratic than the "popularity contest" it once was. Previously, there was a simple vote among S6s; now all pupils vote and the top three are interviewed for the role of captain. The rigorous selection process also requires candidates to explain, in detail, why they want the role and to undertake training on skills, such as how to get the best out of people in meetings.

Walker says one incident summed up the increasing confidence among pupils that she sees rippling through the school. At a parent council meeting on budget cuts, an autistic pupil from S4 - one of two young people at the meeting - became frustrated by what he saw as misplaced priorities.

"He just interrupted and said: 'Look, you're talking a lot about music but you've completely ignored that we've looked at these budget reductions and support for pupils is being reduced.' I just thought, do you know what, he had the confidence to interrupt, he put together an argument, he's researched his background and he's influenced a change in thinking."

Taking the good with the bad

Walker is acutely aware, however, that interventions by emboldened pupils "might not be quite what you wanted". She adds: "You've got to be brave because, when kids are given a voice, they will really use it. You've got to be prepared to have the good with the bad."

A few weeks ago, a 16-year-old Royal High pupil, Harriet Sweatman, won the Scottish Schools Young Writer of the Year competition with an essay, read by many thousands online, about the failings of school and the curriculum's "chokehold on the throats of this nation's children".

Some of the essay is difficult to swallow, says Walker, but she is proud, too: a Royal High pupil would have been less likely to write such a bold piece a few years ago, and the confidence that powered it should be celebrated, she believes.

"She felt safe," Walker adds. "She felt that the school was a place where she could actually express those views. And we might not necessarily agree with them, but that's her perception.

"Kids feel that they're able to come forward with their views and not feel that they'll be pooh-poohed or told to be quiet - they can stick their heads up and it won't be chopped off. We'll listen to them."

Forbes says that, now, it really is the pupils' school, "not just a place that they come to. We treat them as young adults rather than as powerless pupils."

He sees ripple effects throughout the school, in terms of respect for staff and good manners, because the pupils have got "an investment in the place".

All this is timely, says Walker: in the recent climate change protests by children around the world, she sees a tipping point - a cultural moment when young people feel more empowered than ever. Schools, she argues, must help them work out how to get their voices heard. So, Royal High pupils work with Amnesty International and staff give advice on how to lobby local politicians.

"You can see the passion that the pupils have for change, and we teach them in class about great pressure groups and legislative changes. So, it would seem almost counterintuitive to then say, 'but you can't do that sort of thing here'."

Ultimately, Walker believes it is simply a matter of fairness that pupils be given a bigger say in the running of their school.

"There are three big factors in a school: parents, pupils and staff. And there's no point in two out of three trying to push something - you need the pupils to buy into it, too."

Henry Hepburn is news editor for Tes Scotland. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 12 April 2019 issue under the headline "Voice activated"

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