How to harness the student voice

26th October 2007 at 01:00
Imagine Saba. In most subjects she's on Ds and Cs, occasionally in bother for truculence. Yet here she is in conversation with a small group of teachers about how and why she is achieving straight As in business. What is she doing as a learner, the teachers ask? What exactly is her business teacher doing to enable her?

And imagine the teachers - four of them around Saba's table. Their questioning draws out exactly what makes her tick. They take what she says seriously, making notes, treating her with sincerity and respect. Later there are comments about the need to re-assess Saba's potential.

Two days before, Saba had hovered outside my office with: "Miss, I don't want to do it. I can't!" We role-played and she bit the bullet. Now, since meeting with her teachers, she beams seraphically each time we pass in the corridor.

Student-led continuing professional development began as a risky idea dreamt up by the Teaching and Learning Group. Now it's gone down in the annals of our school as a persuasive, evidence-based means of improving classroom practice. Who wouldn't be impressed by humanities students, laptops to hand, demonstrating their self-made topic review PowerPoint presentations? Or by Huma from curriculum support explaining exactly how she has improved her reading age by three years in just 12 months?

The format is simple: three to five students from each faculty, across the age and ability range, who have made outstanding progress over the past 12 months; a similar number of teachers, so as not to overwhelm the students and to enable the "in conversation" nature of the event; staff on a 10 minute carousel around faculty tables; two big questions about what the learner has done and what the teacher has done.

Imagine the finale. Bright Year 11s reflect on their GCSE courses, giving powerful examples of what has worked well, but also the salutary: "Just because we're in top sets doesn't mean we don't like and need some kinaesthetic learning activities" and "We might have quite good attention spans, but we learn best when we have breaks and variety."

Teachers went away committed to using what they had learnt. Several team leaders say they want to run a similar event within their faculty and to feed findings into team improvement planning and faculty-based CPD.

So it's a student voice beyond toilets and chips; learners on how to improve learning. I think the culture shift is gathering momentum and it feels good - very good.

Mandy Oates, Deputy head responsible for professional effectiveness at Belle Vue Girls' School in Bradford.

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