A meaningful say will really get us talking

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Shane Chowen

Here at NUS Towers I spend a lot of time talking to the further education sector about "learner voice".

This time last year I was in a large general FE college where I was a full-time A-level student. It is clear that these students are the most engaged in the sector - easy to access, largely willing to get involved and ever-eager to get CV brownie points.

The most difficult part of working in learner involvement, whether as a staff member or an elected student representative, is the effective engagement of work-based learners, adults, part-time, international and short-course students.

The key words here are effective engagement. While I reject the notion that learner voice is simply "annoying jargon" as Stephen Jones (FE Focus, February 12) will have you believe, he highlights a fundamental barrier that the sector has to overcome - and I don't think our institutions can go it alone.

The NUS has been central to the development of the learner voice agenda. We have supported countless FE students' unions and institutions through our programme of events, suggested learner involvement strategies and model students' union constitutions.

But we're not stopping there. Work is well under way with key partners in the sector to develop a new, more engaging and interactive approach to learner voice. Going further, I'll be asking the new funding and planning bodies to each produce their own learner involvement strategies and will be encouraging the examination and awarding bodies to do the same.

I am often asked, "What does the learner voice sound like?" To me, it is not spending student council meetings discussing car parking and price increases at the canteen. It is about holding our sector to account.

I believe that there should be student involvement in the recruitment of members of staff, and I'm not talking tokenistic focus group discussions. I'm talking about a process with just as much influence as the line manager. I want students to be given the opportunity to shape their learning environments, whether it's the physical environment through a student-led "learning space audit", or the community environment by heavily involving students in their complaints procedure.

The influence students can have during the quality improvement process is heavily under-utilised. I have seen initiatives like Student Lesson Observers, but we know as much as the next person that observations create an artificial learning environment and can't be an accurate measure of teaching and learning.

Why aren't we asking students at the beginning of their course what qualities they think make a great teacher (as we did with the Institute for Learning at our FE Conference in October) and recording their answers in individual learning plans? This can add immense value not just to the student experience but also the professional development of our lecturers. It can also vastly improve students' own awareness of co-owning their learning experience.

In short, we're done with surveys, we're done with questionnaires and we're done talking about the price of chips. Instead, we'd have facilitated opportunities and bold decisions about student involvement in planning, monitoring and decision making alongside a comprehensive learner involvement strategy focused on impact. Now we're talking .

Shane Chowen, Vice president (further education), National Union of Students (NUS).

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