Should we push pupil voice further?

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Union leader and schools minister take sides in the latest of our summer debates

Schools will be expected to involve students even more in their decision making because of upcoming initiatives and recent legislation. But teachers' unions fear the balance of power is swinging too far towards pupils - who are now sometimes sitting on interview panels and even carrying out informal inspections

A union leader and the schools minister take sides in the latest of our summer debates:

  • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right
    • Chris Keates, General secretary of the NASUWT, says `No - in some schools, student voice is being used as a tool to monitor teacher effectiveness'

      Pupil voice has gone too far in those schools which have and continue to distort and abuse the concept. The concept was pioneered by the late Professor Jean Rudduck of Cambridge University. It was defined as the empowerment of pupils to enable them to be engaged and involved in the learning process, thus helping teachers and other members of the school workforce to raise standards and meet the needs of individual learners.

      Teachers recognise fully the need to embed approaches to teaching and learning which encourage learners to take greater responsibility for their own progress and achievement, which engage them in constructive dialogue with teachers and which give them the skills to develop the ability to learn with greater independence.

      Recent national policy approaches in relation to student voice have been influenced largely by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child - Article 12. These provisions have significant implications not only for the work of schools but also for family law, social and health care, youth and criminal justice.

      The fundamental principle of Article 12 of involving children and young people in decisions that affect their lives rightly attracts widespread support. However, it is the translation of this into practice that is proving to be the real challenge and which is leading in some cases to gross distortions of the fundamentally sound intentions of the student voice concept.

      Approaches to student voice already vary widely across schools. There is significant evidence that some of these practices are seeking to influence unduly and distort the messages of pupils for purposes other than educational ones.

      More and more examples are emerging of the views of children and young people being manipulated to serve specific groups of adults. In these examples, student views are sought by inappropriate means and used in ways that are clearly designed for management rather than educational purposes, often to legitimise the views of management. In short, in some schools, student voice is being used to legitimise a management perspective and as a crude and inappropriate tool to monitor teacher effectiveness.

      Children and young people attend school to learn, not to teach or manage the school. There are, therefore, tasks and responsibilities that cannot be allocated appropriately to pupils and require qualified adults. Observing teachers teaching is a prime example of this. Interviewing staff for posts or promotion is another. Involving pupils in such processes must be seriously questioned and challenged by the profession. They are neither a natural extension of the concept of student voice nor an appropriate interpretation of it. They go considerably and inappropriately far beyond, for example, participation of children and young people in school councils, in which pupils, by and large, are demonstrating thoughtful and responsible contributions to school life, or involvement in developing behaviour management strategies.

      Teachers need to be confident in their role and part of that confidence is contingent on establishing appropriate rapport with pupils and feeling empowered to act with authority. Involving pupils directly in making judgments about their suitability for posts and competence in the classroom places these considerations in jeopardy. In fact, activities such as these strike at the heart of pupil-teacher relationships, which are in many respects unique.

      Teachers understand the need to establish an appropriate, professional and personal relationship with their pupils. Those who employ teachers must respect their professional status and role. It's teachers who are responsible and accountable for pupil progress and outcomes. Therefore, although teachers and students must have a voice, the last word must remain with the teacher.

      Regrettably, it is all too common for teachers to be afforded fewer rights, entitlements and less professional respect than other professions simply because they work in schools with children.

      Appropriate student voice activities have fundamental characteristics. They consider effectively the capacity of pupils to participate and the extent to which they can reasonably be held to account for the results of their actions. They promote equality and diversity and tackle discrimination and prejudice. Above all they do not compromise other fundamental rights of young people or the legitimate rights and responsibilities of teachers and headteachers.

      Practices that fail to meet these tests are not only anathema to the true purpose of student voice, they constitute an abuse of children and young people.

      Vernon Coaker, Schools Minister, says `Yes - those pupils who have seen schools as forbidding places should feel included and valued'

      As an ex-teacher, I know that one of the greatest challenges facing schools is how to reach pupils. Any conversations you want pupils to take part in - whether in regard to behaviour or any other aspect of school life - has to be two-way. Many schools already have excellent communication systems in place, but I want them to be present in every school.

      In our recent schools white paper "Your child, your schools, our future", we set out how we want to create a school system where every child and young person is inspired to develop a lifelong love of learning. We want them to progress and achieve to 18 and beyond and be adequately prepared to make a success of their life.

      This is no small ambition. To build on the reforms of the past 12 years, and all the successes of teachers and schools in recent years, we now need to go further.

      In order to ensure high aspirations for every child, we have proposed new pupil and parent guarantees to create more productive relationships, including opportunities for every child and their family to take part in more conversations with schools.

      Every pupil will have the opportunity to have a say on how well their school is doing and how it can be improved and local authorities will be required to gather parents' views on the school choices available in their area. Alongside parental views about their own child's school, this will also mean a significant strengthening of pupil voice in the education system as a whole.

      I want all schools to foster an environment where pupils are valued participants and where responsibility for children's success is shared between staff, parents and carers and pupils. This means everyone has a good understanding of where each child is in their learning and development, where they need to get to and how best to get there.

      It's therefore right for pupils to be encouraged to take increasing responsibility for their learning through participation in decision-making and for schools to consult pupils on a range of issues.

      The schools where we see best practice in supporting pupil voice already involve pupils in everything from their anti-bullying policy to their school menus. One excellent scheme run by the Sorrel Foundation with Partnership for Schools aims to engage pupils in the early design stages of their schools. The joinedupdesignforschools scheme sets up a "client team", made up of pupils, who follow the creative process of research, meetings and discussions to produce a brief telling the school architects and developers exactly what they want. This is an excellent way for pupils to learn life skills such as problem-solving as well as providing useful input into the design process.

      Crucially, the school environment should be a welcoming place for pupils, so that those who have previously seen schools as forbidding places feel included and valued. As schools with extended services have shown, offering families a range of support services and learning opportunities can help to engage them in their child's learning, raise aspirations and improve the life chances of the whole family.

      As schools improve their work listening to pupils, it is equally important that they give parents a strong voice at all levels of the school system, as they can make all the difference to their child's success. Parents know their children better than anyone else and understandably want the best for them.

      We know that when parents get involved in helping their children to learn and have high aspirations for them, it has a significant impact on children's cognitive development, literacy and numeracy skills.

      We want mothers, fathers and other carers to be made welcome by schools and to be engaged in their children's learning and wider development. They should be given the backing and opportunities to support their children to do the best they possibly can. To help deliver this, parents will get regular, up-to-date online reporting of their child's learning, behaviour and progress and they will have more opportunity to influence the running of the school.

      We want schools to strengthen their accountability to parents. To help achieve this, we will strengthen the legislation underpinning the relationship between parents and schools, so that everyone understands the learning, development priorities and goals of each child and knows how the child, the parents and the school will help them achieve these.

      Schools will publish their approach to working with parents and how parents should expect to work with the school.

      I hope the voice of pupils and parents is increasingly better heard, and that these initiatives create lasting and useful opportunities that will only aid teachers and school staff in improving the life chances of all our young people.

      Back story

      The most recent education act has made it law for governors to "invite and consider pupils' views" whenever they consider a change to a school.

      • Methods include getting pupils to carry out official observations of teachers. Greenford High School in Ealing has even introduced "junior leadership teams" that shadow the role of staff on its senior leadership team.
      • NASUWT has warned members not to allow lessons to be formally observed by pupils as this can "legitimise criticism" of teachers.
      • When Ofsted asked pupils how much schools listened to them, 34 per cent replied "not very much" or "not at all".
        • Have your say and cast a vote in the poll on the right

          Responses to a TES web poll on last week's debate, "Should teachers worry if state schools are run for profit?"


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