Students' views must be heard

28th October 2005 at 01:00
Like Dennis Hayes ("Don't ask for an opinion", Backchat, FE Focus, October 7), I travel to and from work on trains visiting student representatives in colleges. It is hardly eavesdropping if the conversation is loud, uncensored by self-consciousness, etiquette or even the vaguest flickering of political correctness.

But such a conversation is hardly representative of the broad input that tutors rightly have into their working conditions and experience. I'm trying to imagine what would happen if, with his Natfhe hat on, Dennis advocated that the gossipy views of tutors on a train should be seen as equally valid with the detailed, thoughtful and constructive representation that his union provides.

The truth is that the idea of the tutor as master has gone. At the recent TES FE symposium, a discussion of values revealed that a key "value" in FE is the adult environment. The tone, atmosphere, organisation and delivery of learning contrast sharply with a traditional school.

We require more from the learner than passive acceptance of authority. A dialogue between tutor and student needs to take place. Tutors and institutions need to understand what helps students to learn.

That is not to say that "student evaluations" are the be all and end all.

At a recent workshop on this very subject, which we at the National Union of Students ran with the Learning and Skills Develpment Agency, students recognised evaluations were simply a "tick box" exercise. This is in no one's interests.

But questionnaires, feedback sheets and voting forms start a process that leads to constructive engagement with learners.

NUS members report that what they really want is less feedback and more representation. They want some power over their experiences. And, most importantly, they want to know that their thoughts are valued and that something is done about them.

The most successful colleges seek feedback from students regularly and systematically, communicate the results effectively and take action accordingly.

This requires more than just the completion and analysis of questionnaires.

Students are valuable members of course committees, as well as members of in-college consultative bodies, and serve on the governing body.

They can also be involved usefully in wider consultation, reviews and planning, such as the local Learning and Skills Council strategic area reviews.

To get students actively involved in the design and delivery of their learning , colleges need to give them specific encouragement such as support for the training of student representatives.

Next time you want to dismiss the views of students, Dennis, remember that, one day, your views with a Natfhe hat on will be dismissed in the same way.

Ellie Russell


National Union of Students

2nd floor, Centro 3

Mandela Street, London NW1

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