If we don't lend an ear, we'll lose their voices

FE may seem to be engaging with `learner voice', but colleges need to do more than hand out some surveys for it to be effective

Since the mid-noughties, the notion of "learner voice" has grown out of all recognition within colleges. It quickly became impossible to enter a further education institution without seeing the iconic but now rather tired claim, "You Said, We Did" plastered proudly on every free surface. The National Union of Students developed a "framework" for learner voice and the 157 Group wrote reports. Students in good colleges were included in lesson observations and some fabulous student politicians appeared: Shane Chowen, Toni Pearce, Joe Vinson, stars one and all.

The influence of learner voice on management became everywhere apparent. A focus on car parking, the price of chips and number of trips has been replaced by: "Was this the right way to do this?" "Do we need to plan for that?" "Who authorised spending on this?"

But these voices, loud and well-informed as they are, belong only to a proactive few. Although learner views are now solicited in every way possible - through national surveys and Ofsted, internal, end-of-unit and end-of-course questionnaires, exit interviews, forums and student governors - a pattern of non-engagement is emerging. The number of learners voluntarily completing these surveys appears to be falling.

There may be reasons for this: students on apprenticeships, for example, are often working and short on time; disabled students may not have the equipment needed to join in; part-time learners have busy, stress-filled lives outside college; those whose first language is not English may struggle with the forms, as may older students. Or perhaps none of these factors is the main issue. Perhaps people have reached saturation point.

Alternatively, the problems may originate in the surveys themselves. The questions may be designed to minimise negative views, or to be so vague as to be unable to reflect true learner views no matter how they are expressed. The value of tokenistic approaches is zero. Students faced with surveys that just go through the motions are hardly likely to believe that learner voice will change anything. If this is the only outlet they have, no wonder they lack the motivation to get involved.

The NUS does an amazing job but even it sometimes struggles to recruit learners and generate enthusiasm. If students are to take up partnership roles as equals and be vital, critical friends to FE, they need to be supported and briefed. Beyond that, their voices must be truly valued.

In some cases, it may well be that all parties feel the process has now become too formal, too structured, one from which the joy has been squashed out.

In other instances, a misuse of quantitative methods to collect qualitative data reduces learner voice to a pale echo. Where survey after survey is used merely as a management tool to produce a few lines of data, the very concept of learner voice is threatened, putting additional strain on students' relationships with overworked staff. This obsession with quantifiable data is FE's least attractive trait.

Cash for questions

More profoundly, we must also ask whether FE still has the collegiate will or, more bluntly, the funding to meet student needs. Is learner voice now a casualty of funding shortfalls, making surveys a double bluff? The data returns may look great but we can continue to do only what is financially viable.

Learner voice is not about data. Nor is it about finding solutions to "issues" such as car parking. Rather, it is about altering the mindsets of everyone in education - changing the very processes and mechanisms so that learners have a direct influence on their education; making them active, not passive, participants. Colleges that manage this are thriving, successful and highly regarded.

Claire Fox missed the point when she wrote in these pages that teaching is "an unequal relationship - the conscious and regular imposition of pedagogic priorities on students regardless of their spontaneous inclinations". Learner voice works in direct opposition to this. And good teachers should have no fear of it. Those who continue to denigrate its value are generally worried that their own pedagogy is not up to scratch.

Martin McQuillan, dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, recently wrote in Times Higher Education that students' "experience is profoundly transformed. They are now encouraged to self-identify as a consumer in receipt of a service en route to an `employability outcome'." But we need to ask whether we have allowed learner voice to change us.

Learner voice is an excellent mechanism if it functions as a true partnership. It enables students to shape their own education, learn employability skills and develop self-confidence. It also allows us, as providers, to be colleges of choice - successful, engaging and, yes, profitable organisations. So think carefully about how you engage your learners; surveys, data and rote engagement aren't working.

Sticking up a poster with a QR code on it isn't learner voice. Isolationist and protectionist attitudes aren't working. Us and Them needs to go, completely.

Perhaps a better way is the one practised by one of my favourite principals: survey students, yes, but also leave your office and join the learners in their natural habitat. Sit in the student canteen, queue behind them at the goat curry counter, roll up your sleeves and join them in the workshops. Walk around and view the college from their perspective. Don't just collect data.

Considering learner voice as an end, a product in itself, is to miss the point. If we fail to act on it, capturing the data is pointless - and a practised deception on those to whom we are purporting to listen.

Jayne Stigger is an FE manager in south-east England

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