Teacher Voice strikes back: further thoughts on student over-representation
I’ve written quite a bit in recent years about the fundamental problems of using Student Voice as an agent of change in schools, most recently in the previous blog, in a post that certainly generated more interest than usual. Briefly, my central complaints against Student Voice are:
- Children aren’t the best arbiters of their own self interest
- Nor are they best placed to judge pedagogy, curriculum or assessment
- Student Voice is often used as an exercise in marginalising teachers
The response was, surprisingly, very positive; surprising because student voice has become such a piece of dogma, such an assumed commandment that to dispute it is an invitation to exile. I spoke at a recent panel debate in the University of Cambridge where Professor Emeritus John MacBeath said, when asked who should be in charge if education, ‘The students,’ and surprisingly, the earth failed to shake and lightning failed to flash as he did. Some of the responses do need addressing, and given that blogs fell no trees, I offer it here:
Student Voice is a powerful tool when used properly. This is hard to dispute, given its ambiguity. Stephen Fry once answered, when asked, ‘Can you have too much of a good thing?’, ‘Of course- that’s what too much means. Too much of anything is, by definition, too much.’ Used properly, I’m sure that a hand grenade would make a fine paperweight, and a Walther PPK could act admirably as a sort of loud light switch. But Student Voice is very often not used ‘properly’- assuming such a usage exists- but rather as an attempt to either evidence ‘participation by all stakeholders, including students’ for some tiresome inspection process, or because the instigators are seeking a pseudo-evidence base for their agenda, such as more fun in lessons or ramping up differentiation by learning style.
Yes, but that’s not what we meant. It can be a powerful tool if those aren’t the motives. I might agree, partially. Let me describe one way in which even I think that Student Voice can be useful. Vic Goddard, at Passmores Academy (as seen on TV) was steering his school through a rebuild- and not a BSF one, so he actually had some kind of say over its direction, as opposed to being forced to act as a witness to the juggernaut of that project. He polled the student corpus to ask what mattered to them in the new school, and they said something that might have escaped many chalk face warriors or LEA bean counters: toilets. It was the one place they had to go at least once a day, and teachers never did. So Vic, moved like some modern Solomon by their ammoniac plight, commissioned polychromatic bogs of adamantine privacy and charm. That’s real student voice: finding out what you genuinely didn’t know before.
It’s harmless; what are you scared of? They're only questions, the truth will set you free, etc. It isn't harmless. There are opportunity costs at the very least, in large expensive surveys, or merely time consuming ones. And every time you ask a body of people what should happen in education, you create a context of entitlement, as the assumption is that these people have authority in the matter. Just because one is affected by something, doesn't give one a say in the matter: this isn;t democracy, or taxation. Teaching is like sunlight. Sometimes, it just happens to you. And schools aren't supermarkets- we don't do customer satisfaction, we do professionalism, the same way a doctor doesn't offer you an orifice intervention menu when something needs removed from your nostril.
Oh, and I’m not scared of the effects of student voice, because it’s already happened. I don't fear it; I suffer it.
The children need a voice. Sure they do. I hear them every day of my working life. Knowing what kids want is not a large problem of this career, I assure you. And children do have a voice. They have us, the adults who love and look after them. We represent them.
Why don't you just work in a prison you f*cking fascist? That was the most peppery reply I recieved recently, but I suppose it represents a constituency of thought. I love kids. I adore them. I would take a bullet for my classes, I assure you. But I won’t allow the desires of children to dictate their own direction. When kids are born wise and adults naive, I will defer to their nous. Until then, I’ll assume I’m in charge of their best interests.
Some kids are perfectly capable, even from a young age, of decisions involving self restraint and maturity. I’ve known 12 year olds who act as primary carers, and sixth formers who practically act as bread winners to their families. Many have wit, and some even surprise me. But that is far from the factory setting, and frequently, children are blind navigators in the storms their own destinies.
It’s of course true to say that they can teach us all something. But that’s an allegorical proposition. They don't actually teach me; I infer lessons from their actions and opinions. I also ask for feedback regularly from my classes. I think any teacher should. But that's my professional concern with my own lessons, and I control the interpretation. The minute someone else starts doing it 'for' me, it becomes a potential area of dispute with the practitioner. Few Head Teachers would countenance asking his staff what they thought of his leadership, yet they frequently do this to their minions. He who interprets the qualitative data, holds the power in this situation. If the analyst is wise and sensitive, then wisdom can be sifted from the dust of opinion. If the analyst is seeking answers upon which he has already settled, then this only ends one way: badly.
Student voice can be useful, but then so can many things, far less prone to deprofessionalising teachers. Francis Bacon's Triptychs could be used to paper your bathroom, but why would you want to?
Student Interview panels, similarly, can do one. If someone can tell me what a small group of children can tell you about how to run a school, how to teach, or whom to hire, that a well trained professional adult couldn’t...well, I’ll show you someone that needs to be doing a different job in a different sector, forever, because teaching and school leadership probably isn’t for you.
That’s my Teacher Voice.