When the students become the masters

20th February 2015 at 00:00
`Pupil voice' is a popular phrase but what does it really mean? And how does it work in practice? Henry Hepburn investigates the increasingly popular phenomenon of power-sharing in schools

Long gone are the days when students on the verge of adulthood sat in regimented rows, keeping schtum until their domineering teacher granted them the right to speak. Now, even the youngest children can be involved in running their schools, from deciding what to wear to who gets hired.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, describes the difference between the start of his teaching career a few decades ago and now as "night and day".

"The command-and-control model at all levels has hopefully long since gone," he says.

"Pupil voice" is the buzz phrase that captures this apparently inclusive, egalitarian culture in 21st-century schools. But how strongly does that voice resonate?

A new report published by children's commissioner Tam Baillie provides "welcome evidence - significantly from young people themselves - that children's rights should not be an add-on in any school, but embedded throughout".

The report, How Young People's Participation in School Supports Achievement and Attainment (bit.lyParticipation Report), argues that pupil involvement in all areas of school life - a "rights-based education" - should not be separated from more traditional measures of success. "Put simply, participation.across all arenas was important for their achievement and attainment," it says.

Yet even in the seven high-performing schools scrutinised by University of Stirling researchers - all with better exam results than might be expected given their deprived catchment areas - there are limits. Pupil councils sometimes appear to be impotent, for example, and opportunities to share power with adults tend to lie with certain groups of young people, such as girls and older pupils.

The report finds plenty to admire, however. Pupils have embraced Curriculum for Excellence and other similar policy initiatives, which they feel give them more influence over formal learning.

According to one young person, "our maths teacher asks how we are with things, and if we'd like it taught a different way". Another adds: "We have a big influence because recently we've been asked to give them feedback on the way that teachers teach."

Praise where it's due

Bryan Paterson, headteacher of Kilmarnock Academy (which did not take part in the study), insists that his school welcomes feedback. "We are confident enough to actively engage students in formally evaluating the quality of what we do on an ongoing basis," he says. "For example, we recently spoke to a wide range of student focus groups as part of our evaluation of teaching for effective learning."

The school's pupils have found plenty to praise but are not shy about what they see as areas for improvement. Some teachers, they believe, could be "better focused on what they deliver" and quiet pupils are too often overlooked.

Speaking on behalf of their peers after a consultation in November, head girl Alana Carmichael and head boy Mathew McAteer said their voice was taken "very seriously".

Yet the pupils taking part in the University of Stirling research want more influence. Their comments suggest that the quality of systems used to capture pupil feedback is patchy, and there is scant evidence that they shape the curriculum to any significant degree.

`They don't have any power'

The report is more positive about the opportunities for pupil influence outside the "more constrained and prescribed" formal curriculum. Taking on roles such as house captain or pupil council member is seen as a "good thing" and students appear to relish the opportunity to organise major events such as sponsored walks.

Even "quite mundane events in the running of the school" have the potential to be "transformed into key learning moments" and bring about "new relations among pupils and staff", according to the researchers.

But pupil councils inspire mixed feelings. "Whenever I've been in [one], they've changed almost nothing," one student says. "They don't really have any power at all."

Another pupil adds: "We just go and say stuff - usually it never happens."

Such experiences have added to the deep frustration felt by the young person who told researchers: "We're more aware of the problems in the school than the teachers. They can't see it from a pupil point of view."

Louise Cameron, chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament, says that the report "rightly identifies" the need to go beyond pupil councils and other types of pupil representative bodies.

"These types of structures, although welcome, are meaningless unless they are properly involved in the decision-making process through principles of co-production and co-design," she says. "Unless this culture exists, where everyone involved recognises and respects the importance of these bodies, they can come across as tokenistic."

The research finds that older pupils are more likely to feel powerless, primarily because they perceive that adults make all the decisions - some feel aggrieved they need a pass from a teacher to go to the toilet, for example.

Young people believe that pupil councils would carry more weight if minutes were tightened up and acted upon. The report suggests that councils should also become better at feeding back information to other pupils, and links with community groups such as parent councils could also be much improved.

Pupils often feel more involved when they can talk to teachers in an informal way, such as in corridors and canteens and at bus stops. (Similarly, they appreciate efforts to connect with them through social media and online homework support.)

No place like home

This chimes with a recent report by charity Grounds for Learning (bit.lySchoolPlaygrounds), which finds that quirky outdoor spaces are a crucial but often underappreciated part of school life ("Play? We'd rather sit on the stairs with our phones", 23 January).

Gordon Cairns, an English teacher and TESS columnist, says: "The idea that stood out in this report, and what the pupils interviewed kept going back to, was the importance of respect."

He adds: "It seems really obvious that teachers should respect their pupils' work and also their sense of self if they want to have a positive working relationship with them, but unfortunately it doesn't always happen."

Relationships between pupils and teachers are positive in all the featured schools, the report finds. One young person even says: "The whole school is a group of friends."

Staff at none of the schools are narrowly focused on pupils' grades, and each institution has "a strong shared vision about the need for young people to grow and flourish as people," the report says. According to one student, "school reminds me of warmth and happiness. It's kind of a home in school - you go and each class has a new parent who looks after you and teaches you at the same time."

Pupils are most receptive to teachers who are approachable and funny but who can demonstrate ability in their subject. Mutual respect, one young person in the University of Stirling study says, "makes you more confident and.open with your ideas". The Kilmarnock Academy feedback similarly reveals students' appreciation of "banter" and the "passion and commitment" of staff.

Ultimately, however, teachers - particularly headteachers - are still in charge. "Even when power was seen to be more shared, pupils tended to defer to adults as a more powerful party," the report says. "Across all schools, adults were seen as the main decision-makers."

The researchers voice concerns about limits to pupils' participation in school and a "deep-rooted acceptance" that schools need to be led by adults, predicting that there is "some way to go before the school system embraces a rights-based agenda".

Pupil participation, they warn, is not about adults listening to young people's views and coming up with a "quick-fix response". The report suggests two essential principles for achieving a more meaningful set-up: that pupils and teachers be equal members of the school community; and that pupils not be viewed as "dependent on adults as somehow their masters".

The problem is that, for reasons that are not entirely clear, students ultimately appear happy to defer to their teachers. Perhaps, the researchers speculate, they are content with informal influence and good relationships with staff - although a less rosy interpretation is that they have "accepted a subordinate position to adults or were, without knowing it, only tokenistically involved in power-sharing".

Whatever the truth behind it, one pupil neatly sums up this acceptance of the status quo: "It's not our school. It's not us who run it, and it's not us who teach the kids, it's them.they're adults - you just expect that."

For more on student voice, see page 34

Not-so-uniform views

Young people at one school visited by the University of Stirling researchers "proudly told of a significant pupil council event".

In a formal debate, senior students had argued for the right to wear a different school tie to set them apart from younger pupils. The headteacher presented his case against.

A vote was held and the pupils won the right to wear the new tie, a decision that senior management had to abide by.

"This event was very significant for pupils in demonstrating the manner in which democratic debate, pupil voice and mutual respect might influence change," the report says.

In other schools visited by the researchers, where pupils had not been involved in sustained negotiation about the rules relating to uniform and what it comprised, it was a much more controversial issue.

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