Pupil voice: how can we listen better?

For years, Scottish schools have been talking about prioritising ‘student voice’ – but how many are really listening? In too many cases, it seems, pupil councils have become easy-to-ignore talking shops. Henry Hepburn visits a student conference to find out what having an influence in school really means to young people – and what they would change if they were given the chance
6th March 2020, 12:04am
How To Listen Better
Henry Hepburn


Pupil voice: how can we listen better?


Scottish education conferences all tend to have some things in common: malfunctioning technology, an inability to stick to timings and bizarre catering choices - most memorably, the jam doughnuts piled high for the break at a healthy-eating seminar.

Over the years, there's been another common feature: a lack of students. They are frequently mentioned, of course, but often in abstract terms. You hear about the numbers gaining certain qualifications or living in poverty or facing mental health problems. There is always genuine concern for them, whatever the issue, but "young people" often seem reduced to an amorphous mass.

You see them in person now and again. Students may get a few minutes to talk about a problem or source of success in their lives. Even then, though, it's often felt to be tokenistic, with this outward display of respect for youth undermined by a feeling that the real message is: "Thanks for coming - now we adults in the room will sort out that thing you mentioned."

But one event last month was unlike any other: several dozen students had gathered to debate pressing issues in education, with the smattering of adults in the room reduced to peripheral roles. As one of the organisers half-joked at the start, teachers had been "banned". And it all felt very different indeed.

The title of the event may have been a tad unwieldy - the School Leaders Scotland Fringe Conference for Young People - but the discussion was spry and driven by a sense of urgency; there was none of that stolid going-through-the-motions vibe so often felt at conferences.

And rightly so: the whole intention of the event was to elevate "student voice" (or "pupil voice" ); the idea that the students of 2020 should have far more of a say in what goes on at school than they did in the past.

This has been an aspiration for quite a while now. Plenty of schools claim to be getting it right but in practice they often fall short.

The biggest regret of Tam Baillie's tenure as children's commissioner was that attempts to amplify student voice had, in practice, delivered little."Pupil councils" were, in many cases, easily ignored talking shops, he said.

So School Leaders Scotland wanted to bring together 70 or so senior students from around the country to discuss how they and their peers could really make a difference.

One of the event organisers, Billy Burke, head of Renfrew High School and a recent SLS president, explained the format a few weeks beforehand: the traditional power dynamic of a school was to be turned on its head. Adults would be barely seen and largely unheard, with the teenage delegates given free rein to tell it exactly as they saw it.

Those who filed up the hill to the General Teaching Council for Scotland's headquarters in Edinburgh, fired up to have their say, possibly didn't feel too enthused when they caught site of the venue: the angular stonework of Clerwood House, hidden away in dank woodland, gives a forbidding first impression as it looms like a Scots baronial Bates Motel.

But the austere exterior was in stark contrast to what happened inside. The students soon threw themselves into proceedings, which largely comprised extended breakout sessions - a corporate term that often translates as "coerced, lifeless chat" at conferences, but not this time.

These discussions, in groups of eight or so, were vital in the true sense of that word - alive with possibility and ideas - and devoid of the inert edu-jargon and box ticking that often blights conferences. The students were brimming with ideas, direct in their language, clear in their aspirations; they leaned on the edge of their seats, relishing the chance to compare notes with their peers.

So, what did they say?

Kafkaesque bureaucracy

Conversation shot off in all sorts of directions, but there was an ever-present sense of catharsis - of finally being able to say what they really thought.

The tone was set in a brief introduction by Josh Kennedy, a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament, who said: "Who better to shape the learning in schools than the people who are learning in schools?"

It's hardly a controversial idea in Scottish schools these days, but the students at Clerwood House felt that, while teachers may nod in agreement at such sentiments, in practice something else happens - or, indeed, nothing happens at all.

Students shook their heads at schools that claim to want their input on pedagogical and curricular matters but can't respond to far more basic concerns affecting young people.

There were tales of toilets that couldn't be used for years, despite successive pupil councils asking for them to be fixed. There was dismay, too, at handwash dispensers being ripped down time and again, at plastic sheets being draped over damaged walls so that toilets resembled crime scenes, and at all the health concerns that arise when students don't feel comfortable using their school's toilets.

Never mind suggesting innovative timetable changes or imaginative approaches to school fundraising. As one student said, the biggest concern he had was that the boys' toilets hadn't been supplied with soap for four months. "It takes so long to get anything done," sighed another boy.

Whether it's Kafkaesque bureaucracy or organisational inertia to blame, the students found the lack of action demoralising and energy sapping. As one S6 girl said, even when students made a breakthrough on a policy, "it won't be implemented until we've left, so it's not going to help us at all".

There were also concerns that, where students were able to exert influence in their school, this did not necessarily flatten hierarchies. Instead, a new pecking order emerged to replace teacher-student hierarchies: only a certain type of student's voice was really heard. One head boy said: "If I present stuff, it's more likely to be taken on board, and I don't think that's right." Pupils who were younger, less vocal or struggling more with school did not tend to catch the attention of senior management, he added.

Students also complained of confirmation bias when teachers consulted students - that staff gave the impression of free and open discussion but often had a firm preconceived idea of what needed to change and then cherrypicked the views of students who seemed to be on the same page.

As one girl put it: "When they find someone who matches up with them, then they use that as evidence to back it up."

There were also concerns that teachers discouraged genuine debate by not giving students time and space to discuss ideas among themselves. "When teachers are around, you're less likely to speak as freely," one girl said. Another felt that, in meetings with teachers, "we're not really there".

'Them and us'

The complaints about what schools were doing wrong - and how things would improve if they took only students' suggestions on board - came thick and fast.

Students warned of growing inequality in schools' subject offerings - some just couldn't do the Advanced Highers they wanted - and said that schools remained overly university-focused. One boy said that schools should be "making sure everyone gets the same amount of commitment for the future they head into", while a girl complained of an "emphasis on exams rather than on how the school makes the pupils feel welcomed".

Others called for better work experience, more opportunities to take part in schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, and "more control over what we're being taught - not just being told what we're being taught".

There were concerns, too, about claims to involve students in events where, in reality, key decisions were made by staff without explanation. Notably, one student recalled a charity function for which not all the proceeds went to the cause they had been told it would support.

One group of students threw around colourful stories about the "weird" and "sugar coated" sex education at their schools - rolling their eyes at a lesson on consent that drew a parallel with someone being force-fed a cup of tea, and highlighting what they saw as worrying disparities between the approaches in Catholic and nondenominational schools.

Students from one school even gulped at the memory of being laughed at by teachers for raising issues about sex education.

The voiced frustration covered almost every aspect of school life, from how young people are referred to - there were complaints that the word "pupil" sounded childlike and reinforced traditional hierarchies - to how they have to dress, with the young delegates comparing notes about the arbitrary uniform rules at their schools.

What bound everything together was a profound frustration and a sense that ineffectual student voice was perhaps even worse than having no voice. One boy said his wish was that school staff were "actually hearing us, [that it's] not just us talking for the sake of talking - not being white noise".

Of course, the format of the event helped to set the tone: students were encouraged to give vent to the frustration that had been building during their years at secondary school. This should not mask the fact that some schools have made great strides with student voice.

As one example, the head students from Renfrew High, Rebecca Leiper and Ewan Mitchell, explained how senior students there are addressing younger students through "Ren Talks" - similar in style to TED Talks - in which they offer their views and advice on topics including studying, building confidence, healthy living and improving students' learning environments.

Debbie Bowie, an art teacher who is responsible for "learner leadership" at the school, believes that younger students listen more attentively to older peers than to teachers: "They look up to them … When the [senior] pupil comes in, you can hear a pin drop - I think a lot of teachers would be envious."

But she stressed that younger students "need to see that there's a role for everyone" in having a say on what goes on at school; Ren Talks are great for letting senior students share what they wish they had known when they were younger, but "it really should be that there's an influential role for every young person".

That view is shared by Allyson Dobson, headteacher at Dalkeith High School in Midlothian, who accompanied two students to the event at GTCS headquarters.

"I think the tide is changing," she said, pointing to the decision in her school to have "pupil voice leaders" as opposed to the more bureaucratic-sounding "pupil council". But there's more to it than semantics: every day, five students are invited in to chat to senior staff for 10 minutes, about issues that matter to them - meaning that, over the course of the school year, these staff should have heard from each one of the school's 800 students.

Ms Dobson wants to see a culture shift, for students not to see teachers as remote figures who, outside of class, shut themselves in an office and drink coffee, but as people who care about learning and welcome new ideas.

And she says that has already been proven in practice, with the structure of the S3 curriculum changing after students raised concerns that there was too big a jump between approaches to learning in the earlier and latter years of secondary.

Student voice, Ms Dobson insists, should resonate through all aspects of school life: "We want it to be less about the loos and more about the learning."

So, what else did the students in Edinburgh think that schools should be doing? There should be an end to "them and us" hierarchies; students should always feel they have been heard - even if an idea proves unfeasible, staff should explain why; jargon should be ruthlessly dispensed with in communications with students; and teachers should be more approachable, and know that if they are not, a student may turn to an inexpert friend for a crucial piece of advice.

Ewan Mitchell, who is in S6 at Renfrew High, said that schools were "only "scratching the surface" of the leadership potential offered by their students.

And what happens now to ensure that all the energy and ideas in that GTCS room do not disappear into the ether?

"Next steps are for a small group of young people to share their findings at the next SLS Council, where school leaders will be challenged directly to pledge their support for the empowerment ambitions put forward," says Billy Burke. "There will also be a meeting at Parliament with the deputy first minister [John Swinney] in mid-March to allow young people to share their thoughts directly with the cabinet secretary."

But staff will also have to accept that, if they really listen to students, schools might turn out to be very different places - and are they ready for that?

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

This article originally appeared in the 6 March 2020 issue under the headline "Voice of reason"

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