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Why student voice has gone way too far

Bowing down to their opinions gives teenagers a power they simply aren't ready to exercise - and robs teachers of authority

When I was an English teacher in further education, I used to do a rather naff exercise with students in the first lesson. I gave them a list of canonical writers such as Chaucer, John Donne and Jane Austen, and put these up against whoever and whatever was fashionable in contemporary culture: "poets" such as Eminem; novels such as Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting - you get the gist.

"Choose what you would like to study," I said. The majority of the teenagers were delighted; they assumed I was a teacher who at last took their tastes and views seriously, and gleefully ticked rap lyrics rather than sonnets or The Simpsons over The Canterbury Tales.

Of course it was a cheap ruse. I would then reveal that we would be studying lots of classic texts that they might at first find alien and challenging, but which they would come to love. I would say I knew more about literature than they did and my job was not to give them what they wanted but to introduce them to writers they had no idea they would like. Despite their initial disappointment ("Aw, Miss, that's sooo boring"), by the end of the courses, many thanked me for opening their eyes to literature they would never have voluntarily read.

This should not be a tale worth telling. And yet today, this idea that a teacher - rather than their students - knows best what should be taught, is contested. Encouraging learners to express their views on curriculum choices is considered best practice for improving classroom motivation, and is paraded as an example of student voice in action. Educators should beware: involving students in decision-making "in the provision of their own education" is in danger of spiralling out of control far beyond even what is required by legislation.

The now ubiquitous student voice movement is growing exponentially, with myriad campaigns, charities and training schemes championing a wide range of initiatives. Schools are told to "put the learner firmly at the centre . actively involved in every aspect of their own learning". Student councils take part in everything from carrying out official observations of teachers to shadowing senior staff, with young people sitting as student governors and on interview panels.

These trends were discussed at a Battle of Ideas satellite debate entitled "Should we silence student voice?", held at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, south-east England, last month. Those opposing student voice were well and truly in the minority. Hardly surprising: asking teenagers whether their views should be taken seriously is likely to lead to an affirmative reply. But when StudentVoice, a Phoenix Education Trust-backed campaign, demands that equal "weight be given to the views of the most important stakeholders in our education system - the students", one has to conclude that this can only undermine teachers' authority.

That authority is not some outdated, hierarchical attitude, seeking to impose a Victorian notion that the young should be "seen but not heard". Rather, it recognises that teaching involves an unequal relationship - the conscious and regular imposition of pedagogic priorities on students regardless of their spontaneous inclinations, presupposing that the older generation has something valuable to impart to the young.

Unintended consequences

Of course we shouldn't silence student voices; teachers need to listen to them every day. But institutionalised student voice can only create a misplaced sense of entitlement in young people that confuses roles in the classroom, putting teachers on the defensive. One sceptic taking part in the debate was lecturer Dr Joanna Williams, author of Consuming Higher Education: why learning can't be bought. Her 14-year-old son had recently told her that he liked his new German teacher, explaining, "I knew I would - we chose him". Applicants for the job had been asked to give a mock lesson, and management then solicited the views of a group of students. Williams asked us to consider "on what grounds had my son chosen his German teacher?" Certainly, it could not have been the man's expertise in German: "Unfortunately my son is in no position whatsoever to assess this. Presumably it was a decision based on looks, personality and, however well-meaning, prejudice."

She has a point. Undoubtedly, 14-year-olds can sometimes be insightful. But more often they are likely to be banal, arbitrary and shallow - and ill-equipped to evaluate pedagogic expertise. This immaturity is not an accusation but a passing phase, youth's prerogative. The problem lies in feeding these superficial views into decision-making. Such practices can hardly encourage students to realise that teachers' suitability derives from their subject knowledge and experience. Instead, they imply that being entertaining, engaging and friendly can trump this.

No doubt this appointment, and others like it, are not based solely on students' feedback. But Williams noted another worrying consequence of this approach. Feeling in any way responsible for getting a teacher a job could give students an extraordinary sense of power. "The first time this teacher does something they don't like - like attempting to teach them German, for example - the arrogant assumption that `we put you where you are' will be all too near the surface," she said.

This topsy-turvy approach can only undermine teachers' confidence. No wonder that in the comprehensive TES Connect "collection of teaching resources to support student voice and school councils", among the most popular sections is one where teachers "about to be interviewed for a new job by a school council or other group of students" seek advice.

Teachers should not need to flatter the young by fawning over their opinions, or to perform entertainingly to secure their vote in a job interview. Real educational connections occur when students realise that adults inhabit a fascinating world of knowledge that is worth working hard to access, and that is far more inspiring than having your voice heard for the sake of it.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas. TES is media partner for the School Fights strand of debates at this year's Battle of Ideas festival, being held at the Barbican in London on 19-20 October.

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