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Does Student Voice Help, Or Just Undermine The Staff?

Ask young people for their opinion, by all means – but never, ever lie to them about the extent of their influence

  • Does Student Voice Help, Or Just Undermine The Staff?

‘Student voice’. The phrase alone generally will cause a fairly binary response if mentioned in a public forum such as Twitter – and if you want an entertaining read on the potentially negative aspects, I do recommend Tom Bennett’s blog of 2010 called Excuse me do you mind if I teach you?.

To me, it’s an issue that poses three big questions:

  • Do we use student voice in a tokenistic way, because we think we have to?
  • Does the use of student voice undermine the staff?
  • Does it actually help?

I am certainly not against our young people having an input into how Passmores Academy improves and develops, but I do think that ‘developing student voice’ is something that runs the risk of being a job to do because we think we should.

Our focus is to develop student leadership. We think it is vital to ensure our young people understand that they do have an impact on the school and wider community, and that they take responsibility for their own actions and their consequences.

Focused influence

The key to this has been a clear discussion with the students about the scope of their leadership and input. I simply do not see the issue in explaining to our young people that there are some things that happen in school where decisions have to be made that don’t directly include consulting them. When we are honest and explain that, they completely understand it.

Hopefully they are all aware that I, and the other staff, have the best interests of the school as a whole and for them individually in the forefront of our minds when at work anyway, so it is not a huge leap for them to accept this.

Ultimately, then, we all agree that not everything benefits from student involvement – and to focus on the aspects of school life that do. Our prefects, for example, each sign up to a specific responsibility – Community, Curriculum, Charity, Rewards or Environment – as these are areas where we and they feel they can inform our decision making and provide leadership of the student body.

So, for example, if we are wishing to carry out some improvement work around bullying we would think about the information and insight that best comes from the students of Passmores and work with the ‘Community’ prefects to ensure we get the most relevant and important information available.

This may mean that they go and talk to other students and come back to us with feedback, or that they actually lead the work themselves and make the improvements alongside us.

Ultimate responsibility

Some people may see this as a lip-service approach but I vehemently disagree. I think young people quickly see through the charade of asking their opinion but then nothing changing, and I believe this is a great deal worse than not involving them at all.

Developing students’ ‘citizenship’ is important, but giving them the message that although we have asked we are going to ignore you, without any further explanation, really doesn’t help that happen. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that it can actually prevent them from engaging with democracy and community improvement, as they will develop a ‘what’s the point?’ attitude.

Young people understand that there are thousands of decisions made during their school life that affect them and that we, as the responsible adults, will normally be the final arbiters of those decisions. But they also are delighted to speak up when we can we use their unique perspective to inform that process.

I work for and with our students; they are fully aware of that, and whilst they are always willing to offer their insight, they accept that sometimes, the decision making comes with the responsibility I have.

Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; you can follow him at @vicgoddard.

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