It is a given that pupils achieve more when they are involved with their learning. Ensuring genuine engagement is, though, a tricky job for teachers to achieve. We want them to give us their feedback, but their years in education have been about receiving, not giving.

Pupils like to please (honestly) and eliciting their true opinions can be hard. Further, when it comes to offering feedback, it is the most confident who tend to dominate any discussion. As soon as the teacher steps in to widen contributions, many are put off for fear that they will say the wrong thing. It is Question Time with nice people on the panel, not politicians.

More formal systems for gaining student feedback, such as questionnaires, can discriminate against those who find written communication difficult, and only work with students academically and emotionally mature enough to be able to communicate using the written form.

Then, to cap it all, from nursery onwards young people have been taught to listen and do as they are told. They have learned to be passive, and now we want them to become active. It is little wonder that teachers struggle to garner effective student input.

The School Council – A Place to Listen to Those We Already Hear

Of course, the standard approach to ticking the OFSTED box when it comes to student voice is the school council. I remember when these took root. They seemed so cutting edge, but as most of us will have experienced, rarely were.

School councils are apt to attract a certain type of student; confident, happy to speak out, often high achieving. I taught once at a school less good than it believed where elections were held for the council. The older pupils would get together and the dominant students select a candidate who, they thought, would disrupt the whole process. These unwitting victims, who had not put themselves forward, often did not realise that they were the butt of their peers’ bullying humour.

The problem came from the fact that the council was completely unable to influence school policy. I remember one year the big student decision would be… wait for it… a herb garden. The pupils were underwhelmed, and another nail was hammered into the council coffin.

Responsibility lay with the head and deputy. To them, listening to student voice was a box to tick, and certainly never to be acted upon. The council received no budget, and the teacher in charge – well-meaning but ineffectual – held no sway over the head.

So, if a school council is to carry any value beyond tokenism, it must be funded with its own, pupil led, budget, and deliver at least one significant action a term. More, if possible. Even then, it is a neutered tool. Many students, even 6th formers, do not consider that their view might influence the curriculum. Instead, a ‘new tuck shop’ mentality dominates.

Letting Eleven Year Olds Decide

Some schools have taken extreme steps to address this problem. The introduction of pupil led study programmes sees students decide upon the learning they will experience. Many teachers consider this a step too far. After all, we don’t head to the doctors to tell them what is wrong with us. We describe our symptoms and rely upon their expertise to make us well. Similarly, it seems bizarre for ten-year-olds to choose what they need to learn, and which skills they need to acquire.

If the Head Listens, Students Talk

The head mentioned above did have a way of hearing student voice – a very skewed one – but nevertheless a system not unusual in certain types of school. This one topped out at Year Eight, and some of the final year students were made prefects. The honour came with a few privileges: the chance to run lunch time ‘tick off’ at the dinner queue, a special tie and a weekly break-time spent with the Head (when he could make it). The loss of playtime was compensated for by a school doughnut and fizzy drink.

Appointment of prefects was totally down to this head, nobody else had a say. Top of the student hierarchy were the Head Boy and, slightly below (honestly), the Head Girl. Again, the qualities needed for these roles were kept secret, although for the former title membership of the school first XV and waspish fair hair seemed, judging by those honoured, to be pre-requisites. (It was that type of school, because it had that type of head.)

One year, the Head Boy was in my tutor group, and during a form time discussion about homework, he volunteered a concern. The head, it turned out, used the meetings to dig up dirt on staff. During the previous one, he had raised one teacher, dug until a complaint arose, then derided the teacher to these pupils. The Head Boy had been somewhat concerned by the whole process. Neither he, nor I, though, could do anything about it.

In fact, there is a place for student voice being heard directly by the headteacher. Nobody else is going to be as successful at inspiring students to put forward their opinions. Obviously, most of us would want our head to meet with a cross-section of the student body and hold conversations in a transparent manner. Even if doughnuts are involved.

Methods to Make Sure We Hear Our Students’ Words

We’ve seen some of the ways that student voice can get lost, or distorted, and there are no easy answers to getting it heard. The following ideas, though, are probably on the more successful end of the scale.

During the latter stages of my career, a student panel was always included when appointing a teacher. My headships were in primary, middle and secondary schools, and the idea works with a wide age range of students. It was remarkable how often the choice of the student panel matched that of the adult interviewers; and even more remarkable how a choice observation from it would help us to make the appointment.

But the best way to ensure we know what our students think is to talk with them regularly, and freely. A ‘no hands up’ type discussion works well. In these, everybody is guaranteed their say, and the teacher simply keeps order, rather than contributing to the discussion.

Most important of all, actions must result. Students will become quickly disillusioned if their observations are always ignored and the discussions simply become an opportunity for the loudest mouths to get their (latest) moment in the spotlight. After all, we all know how frustrating it can be when our every suggestion in a staff meeting is noted with a smile and nod, never to surface again. Students might be more tolerant than we teachers but feel the pointlessness of wasting their breath just as keenly. But we can control what happens in our own classroom, and act upon their observations even if we have little wider influence.

In schools where our suggestions are considered, reviewed and acted upon, most probably we already know what our students are thinking and feeling, because an open-minded head leads to an open-minded school.

In other, more opaque, institutions we can still make a difference if we open our ears and thicken our skin. The result will be that our students feel involved in the learning we design for them. And that is an outcome we all, surely, want.

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