Our voices must be heard, students say

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Biggest ever survey of young people finds that they want to `matter'

Teachers should give students a far greater say in how schools are run and focus as much on relationships as they do on subjects, according to the largest survey of young people ever undertaken.

Education systems in many countries have become so driven by structures and standards that they have "lost sight of the target", which is their students, according to the expert behind a poll of more than 1 million school-aged children in the UK and the US.

Schools must now focus on incorporating much more "student voice" into their decisions in order to engage young people and allow them to enjoy their education, argues Russell Quaglia, leader of the research project, which has taken 25 years to compile.

The annual surveys have revealed that students want three main things from their schooling: to feel that they matter individually, that they matter as a group and that their teachers care, Dr Quaglia said.

"We need to prioritise students and relationships and expectations to the same degree [that] we prioritise reading, writing and the sciences," he told TES. "We need to prioritise the importance of the students and who they are. What I tell teachers is.you have to let students know that they matter to you, that you expect them to do really well and that you care for them."

Dr Quaglia said that student voice - which can involve considerable power and responsibility being handed to young people - was undervalued in schools.

"[The] school council is incredibly outdated: you shouldn't have to elect people to get student voice across," he argued. "Give them some real responsibility, not just planning a dance. Get them involved in curriculum matters or the hiring process. It's not a take-over or giving teachers more work to do, it's about teaching and learning together."

The issue of student voice is highly contentious, with vocal supporters and opponents of the concept, which at its more extreme end can lead to students being included on interview panels for school staff.

"Half the students we survey get the sense that they don't matter as an individual. They want teachers to care for them," Dr Quaglia said. "Then they want to matter as a whole. and feel they want more of a voice in decisions in the school. Finally, they want teachers to matter. Teachers have a profound impact on their lives and they want teachers who enjoy working with them, make learning exciting and are willing to learn themselves."

Over the years, Dr Quaglia and his team at the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations in Portland, Maine, have used field research techniques including observations, interviews, school data analysis, teacher research and pilot interventions.

More recently, they have gathered data through the online My Voice survey, run jointly with the Pearson Foundation. The 15-minute questionnaire asks students about their classes, their relationships with teachers and their school's culture.

The questionnaire is focused on the eight conditions that Dr Quaglia believes are needed for students to achieve academic, social and personal success: belonging; heroes; sense of accomplishment; fun and excitement; curiosity and creativity; spirit of adventure; leadership and responsibility; and confidence to take action.

In the 2013 US survey, which gathered the views of 56,877 students aged 11-18 in 200 schools, only 47 per cent said teachers made school an exciting place to learn. In the UK, 64 per cent of more than 5,800 students surveyed by My Voice last year said they had a teacher who was a positive role model, but only 57 per cent said their teachers cared about their feelings.

The survey showed the need for teachers to spend more time caring for those in their charge and listening to their views, Dr Quaglia said. He is due to present his findings today at the Oppi education festival in Helsinki, Finland.

Peter Kent, headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, England, said that student voice was an integral part of school life. "Students are an important constituency within a school and their voice is tremendously powerful," he said. "Learning is not just something that is the job of teachers - everyone must do it together."

But Claire Fox, director of thinktank the Institute of Ideas, described student voice as "patronising" and an abdication of adult responsibility. "The whole purpose of education is that students are there to learn and access knowledge and the people with the authority to pass that on are teachers," she said.

Giving students a role in teacher recruitment was "even more preposterous", she added. "They can't possibly judge them on their subject knowledge, only on shallow, superficial characteristics. It totally undermines the teacher's authority."

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