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Hi-tech route to engaging young people in their education

Moves are afoot to give students a bigger say in FE, but at what cost to colleges and their staff? Joseph Lee reports

Finding out what students think of college life is no longer simply a matter of passing around the occasional survey. The student voice - the buzzword for ways to give young people a say in education - is going hi- tech.

With at least three national forums in which to make their views known, the idea of student voice is firmly established. However, each forum inevitably attracts mainly the most motivated and outspoken.

To address this, the Edge Learner Forum, run by the charity promoting vocational studies, last month invited a range of technology companies, from social networking sites such as Bebo to online games companies, to share their expertise in engaging teenagers. Chaired by Charles Leadbeater, the innovation guru and sometime government adviser, the meeting was intended to find new ways to gather students' views for a project for the Commons children, schools and families committee on one of the biggest changes to affect teenagers for nearly 40 years - the raising of the education leaving age to 18.

The organisers say that taking cues from computer games is no gimmick: rewards and motivational systems within games offer lessons in how to get and keep teenagers' attention. And no one knows more about reaching large numbers of people than social networking companies.

Rose Dowling, national director of the Edge Learner Forum, said: "We have had a physical network of learners across the country for some time, but we want to start a mass learner movement across the UK, facilitated by social networking and an online world."

She said the project could involve teenagers creating their own online game, with virtual world sites such as Second Life - which has already encouraged colleges to set up cyber-campuses - providing inspiration. One idea is for a game where students design colleges or schools of the future, in a similar way to the urban planning simulator SimCity.

Andy Powell, chief executive of Edge, said that even when students like the idea of having a say in the education they get, there was still a need to motivate them to engage.

"It's like everything in life: people may be interested but the challenge is to make that a stimulus to turn it into action," he said.

"What games are very good at doing is giving feedback consistently and rewarding you at given points until you are doing very sophisticated things."

Huda Al Bander, one of the forum's early members and now a mentor to newer recruits, said that having the chance to debate issues in education was a learning experience for teenagers in itself, in addition to the potential to improve college life.

"I've got so much out of it and I've built up so many skills," she said. "I've become more professional in the way I speak to people, and I've improved my teamwork skills. I've spoken in front of 200 student teachers."

Giving students information was crucial and could transform their views, she said, citing the example of plans to raise the upper age for compulsory participation in education or training to 18. Huda said: "The first impression a lot of people had was that students would have to stay in school until 18, when a lot of them don't stay until 16 now.

"I didn't think it was a good idea. But reading about it, understanding it, I think there are benefits for staying in education."

Creating a mass movement of activist students would be new to further education. While the National Union of Students has been around for almost 90 years, its roots in universities have always been evident. In recent years, the NUS has begun to extend its influence in colleges, ensuring its vice-president for FE was voted in only by students in colleges to improve its mandate and encouraging the growth of properly funded college students' unions, with a growing number of paid officers.

The NUS is likely to remain the only truly democratic representation of student opinion, but faces competition for influence from not only Edge's efforts, but also the Government's National Learner Panel.

Oliver Wood, 25, who is training at Newcastle College to be a teacher of English for speakers of other languages, is chairman of the panel. Although it was organised by the Government, he said that did not mean the panel was not independently minded.

Unlike other student bodies, including the NUS, whose FE membership tends to be dominated by full-time teenage students, the panel has strong representation from adults, including one this year who is 65. And rather than trying to create activists, the panel is aimed at generating consensus around specific policies.

This year it is focusing on the creation of the Skills Funding Agency for post-19 education, the Framework for Excellence, which is intended to measure colleges' responsiveness to students and employers, plans for a new adult education advice and guidance service, and plans for skills accounts. Although somewhat dry and bureaucratic, the panel members chose the topics themselves from a range of options.

Mr Wood said: "We meet with policymakers and they value our input as people who do have a qualified opinion. I think teachers will be better for it, not just us.

"The people who are being educated aren't just passive recipients; they are involved in their own learning. The days of the teacher standing in front of the class and talking are gone. I really believe that."

The University and College Union says abuses of student power are not very evident in FE so far. The sector has not yet seen the consumer culture that has taken hold in some universities, where students have begun demanding refunds because they were stuck in a lift and missed a lecture, or were not happy about the quality of feedback.

Nor have colleges seen the clumsiness of one school's efforts to involve pupils in recruiting teachers by forcing candidates to undergo five-minute speed dating-style interviews with their prospective students.

FE students have been given powerful roles and a great deal of influence, however. Two years ago, Chichester College in Sussex began allowing students to join internal lesson observations to give feedback, though not to grade their lecturers. While the college received some criticism for its intensive observation regime, some staff approved, arguing that they were being observed by their students in every lesson anyway.

This approach looks likely to be taken up elsewhere, as the Edge foundation is working with FE institutions such as Lewisham College, in south-east London, to develop similar systems where students contribute to lesson observation.

Dan Taubman, senior national education official at the UCU, said lecturers were supporters of student voice initiatives - it is, after all, part of their job to help students express themselves - but students needed to be careful about how they were used.

"With things like student observations, they can be very valuable. They are the students and we need their comments to improve," he said. "There are some things that they might not like which can't be avoided, though, like doing assignments.

"What we certainly don't want is student voice to be misconstrued by college management as a weapon against lecturers."

Giving students more democratic power also made it important for them to be better informed, so their judgments could be truly independent, Mr Taubman said. "If they are being fed a diet of the Government's agenda, then I would be concerned. They need to have their own view," he said.

Issues such as this are set to become more important as colleges' commitment to student voice grows. And if FE is to have a mass movement of student activists, college staff hope it can be an orderly procession.

Student Voices

Edge Learner Forum

Set up by Edge, the charity promoting vocational options in education. The forum has grown to 200 members since its launch in 2004 and now plans to recruit 2,000 "young associates".

The National Learner Panel

Established by ministers in 2006 and now overseen by the Learning and Skills Improvement Service. Each year the panel recruits 20 volunteers, aged 16 upwards, to give their views on policy. A panel of 14 to 19-year- olds is also being set up.

National Union of Students

Formed in 1922 by university students. Five years ago the union admitted its voice in the FE sector was "deficient" and set about strengthening the role of the vice-president for further education and appointing more full- time officers in colleges.

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