Right to be heard

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
Do pupil voice initiatives raise the standard of teaching or do they merely result in more work and the wrong kind of intervention? Nick Morrison investigates

By any standards, the comments from the official observer are pretty positive. There was a good variation in teaching methods, a lot of interaction, a comfortable learning environment and references to previous lessons showed how it all linked together. All in all, a well-structured lesson conducted at a challenging pace and with clear objectives. It's the sort of feedback that many teachers would be happy to hear. But does the fact the observer in this case is 16 years old make it any less valid, or any more?

Nikul Kotecha, the Year 12 student in question, is one of more than 100 pupils at Beauchamp College, a 14-19 school in Leicester, who have been trained in lesson observation. The observations are based on Ofsted's practice, and today Nikul is sitting in on a Year 12 geography class as part of one of the most comprehensive exercises of its kind yet undertaken in the UK.

The school has termed it Insted, a student equivalent of Ofsted, and students will observe about 200 lessons across all departments, pulling their findings together in a report to be published next month. Insted puts Beauchamp at the forefront of an increased shift towards giving pupils a voice in everything from the colour of their uniform to appointing a headteacher.

But not all schools are embracing the pupil voice movement so wholeheartedly. Last week, The TES reported that the NASUWT union felt that some headteachers manipulate pupil-voice initiatives to bully teachers and promote their own interests. It has received such a sharp rise in queries from members about pupils having a greater say in schools over the past two years, that it has drawn up specific guidance for teachers on dealing with pupils having their say.

The rapid expansion of pupil voice, taking inspiration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child drawn up in 1989, has been bolstered by research suggesting it has a positive impact on areas including pupil behaviour, confidence, communication skills and achievement (see panel on page 16).

Almost all schools now give children a forum to air their opinions in the shape of school councils - indeed, in Wales every school must have one by law - and it is commonplace both for pupils to sit as observers on governing bodies and for candidates for teaching jobs to face a panel of pupils as part of the interview process. After bringing pupil voice into the way schools are run, it is perhaps a natural next step to extend this to teaching and learning. But such moves have helped foster a sense of unease in some quarters. Legislation now going through Parliament will elevate consulting pupils from an option to a legal obligation. The range of subjects covered by this new duty has still to be determined, but John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes this prescriptive approach places a burden on schools and inhibits them from finding their own ways of hearing pupils' views.

He also takes a dim view of proposals to give pupils the right to appeal against permanent exclusion, suggesting it will lead to spurious appeals and extra work for schools. "This is the wrong kind of pupil voice," he says.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, says the positive impact of pupil voice - engaging pupils and encouraging them to become independent learners - risks being diminished by abuse. She cites instances where teachers have considered pulling out of interviews because their experience of a pupil-panel led them to question the level of respect in the relationship between pupils and teachers. In one extreme case, job candidates were expected to rotate around pupil interviewers in a set-up resembling a speed-dating evening.

Far from always being a neutral tool, Chris suggests pupil voice can be used by school managers to provide the clinching argument for their own proposals, while less supportive views are conveniently ignored. "Student voice can be positive, but sometimes there's a bit of hypocrisy in the way it's used," she says.

But Richard Parker, principal at Beauchamp, believes pupil observation has a crucial role in raising the standard of teaching. "Students have as much, if not more, to offer in terms of commenting on the quality of the teaching and learning experience," he says. "The point the unions are missing is that the majority of people who are worried about this are people who are insecure about their own abilities."

Gill Greany, assistant principal and herself a former Ofsted inspector, spearheaded training staff in lesson observation, before extending that to pupils three years ago. She suggests pupils can often make better observers.

"They're honest and perceptive. Staff are often worried about upsetting a colleague," she says. "When teachers observe lessons, they're often thinking about their own teaching, while students can see it from the learners' point of view." She acknowledges that some teachers were apprehensive about being observed by pupils, but no one has been forced to have a pupil observer if they objected.

The pupils' comments are recorded on an evidence form modelled on the Ofsted version. After observing today's Year 12 geography class, Nikul Kotecha suggested that the teacher could have used more time-limited exercises, noting that the students worked well in these conditions. "I totally agree," says Elena Leto, whose lesson on urban rebranding was the one under the microscope. "Sometimes you plan a lesson but you lose what point you're at, so it's good for someone to remind me of that," she says. A newly qualified teacher, Elena says she has no problem with being observed by pupils.

"I'm open for constructive feedback from students. You are teaching them, so you have to listen to them. If you can't accept feedback you are probably in the wrong profession."

Helen Russell, an economics and business studies teacher, admits she was reluctant to take part at first. "I thought students shouldn't be telling teachers how to do their job," she says. However, she agreed to give it a go, and believes her teaching has improved as a result. "You can always learn from the feedback you receive, wherever it comes from."

The pupils tend not to pull their punches. A student observation on a Year 11 English class, for example, concludes by suggesting that the teacher should try and control the class better and ask more focused questions. Despite this, none of the pupil observers reports an adverse reaction to their comments. "Most teachers take it quite well," says Laura Whitehouse, 15.

But Chris Keates suggests such formal observations can threaten the relationship between pupil and teacher. The NASUWT guidance document says that legitimising criticism in this way can undermine pupil confidence in their teachers, and warns against any attempt to include pupil feedback as part of a performance management regime. The union also counsels against involving pupils directly in staff recruitment. "The union does not believe it is appropriate . to involve seeking the views of pupils on the relative merits of an applicant's teaching to inform recruitment decisions," the guidance says.

Another strand of pupil voice is the appointment of pupil representatives to governing bodies. Phil Revell, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, says there are some debates where it would be inappropriate to have pupils present - and governing bodies are entitled to exclude them from discussions on sensitive issues - but they should be given as much opportunity to contribute as possible.

He says pupil voice is a vital part of citizenship education, preparing young people for their adult lives. "I don't see how you can do that unless you involve them in the institution where they spend much of their time." He says this should not obscure the fact that the governing body is in charge of a school, but he suggests that failing to adequately consult pupils could have serious consequences. "Where that breaks down, the legitimacy of a school is questioned by young people, and you get poor behaviour or rejection of what a school is trying to do."

Beauchamp is also pushing the boundaries in the areas of pupil governors and staff interviews. The pupils were responsible for recruiting the college's student manager for key stage 5, a pastoral role, devising the selection procedure and interviewing and appointing the successful candidate. The college's two student representatives on the governing body have access to all the papers sent to other governors, including details of budgets and pay, although not that of individual teachers.

But Beauchamp is not the only school pushing pupil voice into new areas. At Alder Grange, a secondary school in Rossendale, Lancashire, the school council has been given responsibility for disciplinary issues arising during break times, with the power to impose sanctions such as litter picking and detentions.

Jo Griffiths, deputy head, says one result is that the number of pupils caught smoking in the school grounds at lunchtimes has fallen dramatically. While the miscreants feel they are treated fairly, she says they are more worried about being dealt with by their peers than by staff.

Alder Grange has also introduced teams of pupil researchers to study teaching and learning issues so they can make recommendations for improvements, and is looking at introducing lesson observations by pupils.

Baltonsborough Primary, near Glastonbury in Somerset, has moved beyond the school council, replacing it with smaller teams. Groups of between two and eight children have responsibility for looking at different areas of the school, including books, technology, the cloakroom and the school garden. Lesley Fenwick, the headteacher, says that this approach gives a voice to all the pupils, rather than just those on the school council, and has led in turn to a marked improvement in their behaviour.

But while many teachers accept that pupils should have a say on issues of school organisation, even if to not quite the same degree as at Beauchamp, some question whether taking it into teaching and learning risks making pupil voice an unstoppable train. Andy, a maths teacher at a secondary school in east London, is one of the doubters.

Andy says that school leaders can give too much weight to pupil voice. He cites a survey of gifted and talented pupils at his previous school, which found an overwhelming number said their lessons were boring. On closer investigation, Andy says boring turned out to mean too much work and not enough messing around.

He says it is too easy for headteachers to use pupil voice to justify what they want to do, but ignore it when it runs counter to their own views. "As soon as pupils said something that was in line with management thinking it is quoted ad infinitum as if it were genius," he says.

Andy warns that one consequence of the trend towards giving children and young people more say in schools is that it will make it harder to manage pupils. "The problem with the shift towards giving pupils more influence and more rights is that they're not being given equivalent responsibilities," he says. "This is resulting in a slow disempowering of schools."

Gary, a humanities teacher, says his secondary school in the East Midlands is experiencing this downside of pupil voice. He says lesson observations carried out by pupils have damaged staff morale and encouraged the children to think they are their teachers' equals.

"We have kids walking around telling staff that they're going to be watched next and they had better look out. It's been quite destructive," he says. "There are too many pupils who think everything is about bargaining and negotiation and there are no real boundaries between staff and pupils."

He says while teachers can improve their classroom practice by listening to pupils, this is best done informally, rather than through structured observations. In schools where behaviour is an issue, such as his, elevating the status of pupils has not been helpful. "We're convincing a whole cohort of children that they're our equals when they don't behave like it. It's damaging the fabric of the school and in 20 years' time this will be seen as a big mistake."

Gary contrasts the enthusiasm for pupil voice with the attention paid to teachers' views. "The amount the senior leadership team listens to staff has actually gone down," he says. "If there is a consultation, we're the last people to be asked, and you start to wonder how important the teachers are in all this."

Ofsted inspectors already look for evidence that pupils' views are taken into account, but until now gathering the opinions of teachers has largely been confined to talking to staff during lesson observations and meeting individual teachers. As part of its new inspection framework from September, the agency is now looking at questionnaires as a way of soliciting the views of all staff.

Ros Frost, a researcher into pupil voice and co-ordinator of the Leadership for Learning network at Cambridge University, which looks at issues of leadership in education, recognises the concerns felt by some teachers. But she says pupil voice has the potential to transform the relationship between teacher and pupil.

"A lot of teachers say they don't have much control over what is going on in school," she says. "And if they feel they don't have much voice, then it can be very frustrating when so much attention is paid to pupil voice." She says teachers should never be forced to submit themselves to observation by pupils, but where it has been done it has proved valuable. "It can be one of the most productive forms of professional development."

Barry Percy-Smith, a reader in childhood and participatory thinking at the University of the West of England in Bristol, acknowledges the potential for discord as pupil voice expands and grows. "Schools aren't democratic - they are very hierarchical institutions and a lot of people are asking how they can empower children when they're not empowered themselves."

But he suggests that far from going too far, pupil voice has not gone far enough, and in many schools is little more than tokenistic. Children may have a say over what colour to paint the walls and where the litter bins go, but no influence over their learning. One possible route, he proposes, is to create a culture of participation across the school, with both teachers and pupils having a say over what goes on in the classroom.

"Until we empower teachers we are not going to have real participation in schools. Kids should be able to challenge teachers, but it is about everyone putting into the pot, not just young people," he says. If this is the way forward, the question is whether there is enough room for everyone to have their voice heard.


Research suggests that the benefits of pupil voice range from increasing confidence and self-esteem, to improving attendance and attainment. A study by the Carnegie Young People Initiative in 2006 found there was an indirect link with achievement, with pupil feedback leading to an improvement in teaching, and children in democratic schools feeling happier and more in control of their learning.

Teachers believed that consultation increased self-esteem among pupils and gave them a more positive attitude to learning, according to a study by the late Professor Jean Ruddock, of Cambridge University, in 2005, while a review by the National Foundation for Education Research in 2007 identified nine areas where it had a positive impact, including behaviour, communication skills and responsibility.

The Teaching and Learning Research Programme has found benefits for teachers include experiencing different ways of working, finding pupils were more positive and active, creating new partnerships with pupils and gaining insights that helped their own professional development.

Teaching and Learning Research Programme: www.tlrp.org.

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