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A calling to let children be heard

Ask the average teacher what they know about the work of Jean Rudduck and you will probably get a blank look. But ask them what they know about pupil voice and you will get a lively response. Many will be dismissive, regarding the idea of consulting pupils about everything from the hiring of staff to the quality of teaching as a step too far, undermining the authority and role of the teacher. But a growing number regard pupil voice with the passion of the convert, seeing it as a means of deepening the engagement of children in learning, and in school life generally.

Since the mid-1990s Professor Jean Rudduck, who died of ovarian cancer aged 70 last year, has been the central figure behind the development of pupil voice. She was by no means the first to suggest that teachers should engage with pupils, but was probably the first to put the perspective of children firmly at the centre of curriculum change.

Her reputation in this field was established with the 1996 publication of School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us?", co-written with her Cambridge colleagues Roland Chapman and Gwen Wallace. This seminal work argued that "what pupils say about teaching, learning and schooling is not only worth listening to, but provides an important - perhaps the most important - foundation for thinking about ways of improving schools".

It argued that the maturity and capabilities of young people were much greater than most schools recognised, and that deep-rooted assumptions about childhood and adolescence needed to change to fit current realities. The aim, it concluded, should be "to strengthen young people's sense of themselves as confident learners and strengthen their commitment to achieve".

The book became, as Michael Fielding of London's Institute of Education put it, in an appreciation of her work published last year, "the catalyst of the school improvement movement", both in the UK and around the world.

At a political level, Professor Rudduck's ideas chimed with the emerging New Labour agenda of citizen involvement - evolving policy through listening to the voice of consumers. Pupil voice, as it quickly became known, is now firmly established as a means of driving improvement, especially in schools that have fallen into difficulty or operate in challenging circumstances. The Government's Every Child Matters strategy highlights the need to engage pupils in decision-making, while Ofsted regularly asks them for their views.

An indication that pupil voice is gaining widespread acceptance in schools came in March this year, when a TES survey of 2,000 teachers found three- quarters in favour of involving pupils in drawing up teaching and learning policies. The finding suggests Professor Rudduck's ideas are likely to have a lasting influence, well beyond the whims of political fashion.

From her early days as a researcher for the Schools Council in the 1960s, she became committed to listening to what pupils had to say. Her first job was to study the attitudes and experiences of young school-leavers at a time when the leaving age was about to be raised from 15 to 16.

"She was particularly concerned right from those early days working on the School Leaver Inquiry," says John Gray, her fellow researcher and partner. "Both the pupils and their teachers were pretty fed up about them having to stay on an extra year, and they became disengaged. Jean became interested in finding ways of re-engaging young people - little things like how teachers talked and related to them, and big things like what they should actually learn and who should determine that."

This early study, and subsequent work with the Schools Council on innovatory approaches to teaching humanities, formed the foundation of her life's work, both as a researcher and teacher trainer. By the mid-1980s she was arguing for a much more open partnership between teachers and pupils, based on pupils' views.

After the publication of School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us?, Professor Rudduck was suddenly in huge demand. Her life became a flurry of writing, attending meetings with policy-makers and involvement with a series of projects in which she worked with teachers to explore the possibilities of pupil voice.

According to Regan Delf, head of inclusive learning and development for the East Sussex School Improvement Service, working with her was an inspiring experience. "Often she would rush into a meeting after a harrowing journey from Cambridgeshire with `just a few notes I made on the train' and light the path before us," she says.

"She brought to us her incredible gift for synthesising disparate pieces of information and embryonic ideas into concepts with true intellectual rigour and real potential to improve educational outcomes for young people. Another gift was to bring the best out of everyone."

While pupil voice has gained a growing body of supporters, it does have its detractors. Among them is Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove Primary in south London, who wrote in a recent TES article: "I don't want to pretend that children are miniature adults, with similar reasoning skills. They aren't, and nor should they try to be . They want to feel that the adults around them are knowledgeable, wise and worth taking notice of. They don't want a questionnaire thrust in their face every five minutes."

Mr Kent's concern is that pupil voice is getting out of hand, with social services and educational psychologists demanding the inclusion of children's views on referral forms and Ofsted keen to train older children to monitor and assess their teachers.

No doubt Professor Rudduck would sympathise. Before she died, according to Professor Gray, she was worried that even teachers with the best intentions sometimes heard only the messages they wanted to hear from pupils. She was also concerned about the danger that more vocal pupils would drown out the voices of others, thus skewing the picture.

"Her biggest worry was that they would talk about things that were not directly to do with teaching and learning - that it would become about school-wide issues rather than classroom issues," says Professor Gray. "She wanted pupil voice to be absolutely centred on the classroom. What she really wanted teachers to understand was what their pupils were thinking about, the relevance of what they were learning and the extent to which it was engaging them."

Next week: Guy Claxton and the importance of building learning power

Jean Rudduck's book legacy

School Improvement: What Can Pupils Tell Us? (with Roland Chaplain and Gwen Wallace) David Fulton, 1996.

How to Improve Your School: Giving Pupils a Voice (with Julia Flutter); Continuum, 2004.

Personalised Learning and Pupil Voice (with Nick Brown and Lesley Hendy) Department for Education and Skills, 2006.

Improving Learning through Consulting Pupils (with Donald McIntyre) Routledge, 2007.

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