On the power of student voice… and leadership

There have been quite a few things I have been passionate about during my many years in education. Some of these enthusiasms have waxed and waned, but one of the longest serving has been a firmly-held belief in the power and place of student voice.

So when I read appalling tosh on the subject of student voice from normally sensible folk, such as Tom Bennett’s recent piece in the TES, I can get quite cross. This isn’t a new stance for Tom, he has been rubbishing student voice for years. But it still irritates, especially because Tom is insightful and positive about so many things that this seems an odd lacuna in his education world view.

He occasionally sounds quite reasonable, “student input can be valuable – which is a sensible position few could dispute”. But even where he finds evidence of value in student voice (“Interestingly, student evaluation of teachers has been found in some studies to more accurately predict grade outcomes (and by proxy, teacher quality) than graded lesson observation”) he has to add an immediate put down (“But given that the latter is as reliable as reading tea leaves, I don’t think the bar is high.”)

In fact, his piece got me cross enough to rouse myself from autumnal slumbers to write this response. So no apologies for a cathartic, anecdotal-laden account of why I believe student voice shows itself to be so important in education! And which I realise, after completing it, seems to mostly involve discussions in Headteachers’ offices, at various points in my life…

Sixties flashback…

fitzwilliam_collegeIt’s always hard to pin down the origins of a long-held belief, but my earliest real memory of the importance of student voice dates back to own schooldays. These were of course in black and white, and in the Sixties, at just about the time they began to swing. One day a dozen or so of us lower sixth formers were summoned to the Head’s study, an exceedingly rare occurrence. “You have been chosen to take a third year sixth, and to sit Cambridge entrance exams. You will apply to Fitzwilliam College, where I have contacts, and those of you that do well enough in your exams will be offered a place.” Then we were ushered out again. No discussion or questions.

Now I was a northern, working-class lad with ambitions, but I already knew that I had absolutely no desire to attend Oxbridge. Enough news had filtered back, from boys in the years above, about how us northern oiks were treated down there to rule Oxbridge out in my book. But the Head’s decrees were also absolute. He was obviously keen to boost the school’s standing in those pre-league tables days, and Oxbridge entries were a key metric. And the Head’s word was law, never questioned, so that was that.

But hey, the Beatles had been invented, revolution was in the air, and about half a dozen of us wanted to register our opposition. I inadvertently became the ‘ringleader’ by being the one who knocked on his study door. Another first, though we had of course checked in with his secretary and been advised that it was OK to do so. ‘I am not in the habit of taking deputations’, he boomed, ‘you front three come in, be off with the rest of you’. I stammered out our unwillingness to go to Oxbridge, on behalf of our little rebellious gang. ‘Nonsense’, he said, ‘You clearly don’t know what you are talking about, or what’s best for you, of course you are doing the third year sixth and applying to Cambridge’. Most folded, but three of us held out, which got us blackballed when prefect selection came up. But we still held out, even though denied access to the hallowed precincts of the prefects room.

Well, we had to do a third year sixth, as the Head also point-blank refused to give us references to other universities to allow us to apply in the second year, along with our peers. No reference, no entry – absolute power, and he thought we’d weaken post A level. Even said as much to my mother, when she served him in the shop where she worked.

I was grudgingly allowed to become a prefect in the third year sixth, after getting good A level results, but I still refused to sit the Cambridge Entrance Exams, or go to the special coaching sessions (think ‘History Boys’, but minus Richard Griffiths). I duly went off to my chosen Durham University with his criticisms for my daring to express a contrary opinion and challenge his authority still rankling. His conviction that students did not know what was best for them in such matters was sincerely held, but in my view appallingly misguided and patronising. Disdain for student voice often is.

After three glorious years at Durham, and a surprising First, a summertime chat with some of my Cambridge contemporaries revealed two nervous breakdowns, one attempted suicide, some very miserable stories and a smattering of 2.1s/2.2s by people that I knew were far smarter and brighter than I was. Of course, some had succeeded. One of those peers three years earlier, and Head Boy to boot, who was happy to be going to Cambridge was Vince Cable. A quick glance at Wikipedia or the TV reveals that he did OK.

But I still believe that I knew what would suit me better than did the Head, and had learned that student voice can have a real place, and a legitimacy. I had also learned a crucial lesson that Heads may sometimes do what is in the school’s best interest, rather than the pupil’s.

A loud report… not allowed report

reportWhen I finally left Durham, after acquiring a couple more qualifications, I ended up learning the secondary teaching trade in West London. A few years in my teaching was transformed by a great idea from a colleague, the Head of History. One day when writing reports, one of his Year 9s had challenged him about why teachers always wrote reports on pupils, but never pupils on teachers. ‘OK’, he told the student, ‘put together a class report on my teaching’. Down the pub he told us just what an eye-opener the resulting report had been. They had picked up on both the strengths and weaknesses that he recognised in his own teaching. More crucially, they made him aware which of these they could live with, and which really got in the way of their learning.

So the next term a small group of us teachers got some of our own pupils to write reports on us. Getting a single combined report from the form seemed to help them to take it seriously, and cut out the stupidity that individual anonymous reports could generate. And I also learned a huge amount about my own pedagogical strengths and failings. The students were perceptive, frank and entirely fair. At the next staff meeting the Head made a short announcement. ‘It has come to my attention that some of the staff have been getting classes to write reports on their teaching. This practice will stop now’. I had the temerity to ask why, as I had found it so beneficial. ‘Go to my office NOW. This meeting is over’, came the reply, which rather shocked most of the gathered staff, especially yours truly, since the Head wasn’t normally so abrupt, and usually encouraged discussion at staff meetings.

I duly went and stood, somewhat chastened, at his office door. He followed in seconds, and ushered me in. ‘Do sit down, would you like some tea?’ he asked, beaming. Taken aback, I said ‘Yes’, and sat, awaiting the inevitable dressing down to follow. When his secretary had poured the teas, and left the room, he turned to me, still beaming and said something along the following lines. ‘You are wondering why I, who you believed to be a kind and liberal head, has just shut you up and humiliated you in such a way. You did not expect it, or probably deserve it, and I am going to explain my reasons, though this is a conversation that has not taken place, if anyone asks.’

‘Firstly I know from my own experience that this student feedback is a powerful and effective tool to help improve teaching. I believe you when you say it taught you a lot about yourself and your practice, as it did your colleagues. I have already had a long chat with [the Head of History] about this too. But I am the Head here, and I have a school to run. I have innumerable conversations with pupils, and sometimes their parents, about the teaching that goes on in this school. I can tell you now that around 25% of the staff in this school could not bear to hear what their pupils really think of them. I owe a duty of care to those teachers as much as to the rest of the staff, the pupils and their parents, and I need to keep this school running. So it is for that reason that I am banning this idea, before the pupils start demanding the right to write reports on ALL their teachers.’ We then had a nice chat about what I had learned from the reports, how I had tried to improve my teaching, and he was his usual supportive self thereafter.

Two valuable lessons for me from that experience. One on the power and effectiveness of student voice, and the other I believe was probably my first real insight into what school leadership was really about. It also helped explain why the Sixth Form Council that was set up a year or so later, that I have written about elsewhere, was cunningly contrived to pay lip service to student voice while making sure the staff were in the majority when it came to voting. I learned a lot from that Head.

But it has always left me wondering whether those who are so resistant to student voice are partly driven by a secret fear of what students may really think of their teaching? Or, of course, it could just be simple ‘teacher knows best’ arrogance? Or probably a much more complex mixture of these and other things … ‘It’s complicated’ usually covers it.

Opening the gateway to the deep…

gatewaysWhen much later I worked at SSAT, I was delighted to find that recognition of Student Voice had moved forward significantly. The co-constructed work by Prof David Hargreaves, with hundreds of school leaders, identified Student Voice as one of the nine gateways to school transformation. Lots of schools produced evidence of real school improvement and development of deep learning through student voice, alongside learning to learn and assessment for learning. That Redesigning Learning programme, which began over 10 years ago now, was one of the most rewarding activities in which I have been engaged, and much of it’s development is still available online for those keen to read about the real impact of student voice. Excellent stuff, but you can read about it yourself, so I need say no more. And there is more support in work based in schools elsewhere, such as that outlined in the Schools Report 2016 (PDF) from the Quaglia Institute.

Some of those responding to Tom’s student voice hatchet piece on social media spoke equally scathingly of students being on interview panels for teaching appointments. Again my own experience of this has been entirely positive, and the exact opposite of the twitter complaints. Asked to be an external member of an interview panel for a headship appointment, where the school had made a major investment in ICT, I was pleased if surprised to find two pupils also co-opted onto the panel.

The field was not very impressive, but one candidate seemed to impress most of the panel, though I was disappointed with his ICT responses. But a student’s question, around care and well-being clearly totally threw him, and to me showed someone not ready for headship, revealing a lack of a wider view of schooling and limited experience. Sadly this element was ignored by the powerful panel, who rather disregarded the students’ opinion in the final review, and he was duly appointed. Only to resign a year later having totally failed to carry the school forward, and with little empathy for the students in his care. Which would have been a win for student voice, except there are no winners in such circumstances, and a school that had been nurtured out of special measures through a combination of student voice and transformed pedagogy under the previous head slipped back down again.

I also remember the Head of a wonderfully successful Birmingham primary, in another Head’s office discussion, telling me that the Year Six members of his teacher interview panels had by far the best track record when it came to spotting successful recruits to his teaching staff. ‘I think it is because they are really good at picking up which applicants genuinely care for the children they will be teaching’, he observed, ‘I get them to show the candidates around the school, and by the end they know’. Mind you, that was a school that also had year 3 pupils helping teach year 2 pupils things they themselves had learned the year before, and of course inevitably reinforcing their own learning at the same time. So much for students not being in a position to comment on teaching!

An international view

But the latest and probably most powerful argument for student voice for me was meeting the Student instructors while I was at the Agastya Maverick Teachers Global Summit in India. The Foundation is bringing education into the villages of rural India. Each evening pupils gathered in the local village schools fagastya-svor homework sessions, which are run by the older students. The most capable that learn well and speak out in class can train to become student instructors. Peer learning and student voice, writ large and impressively. On some occasions older students who had done well, and left the village to attend college or even university, will return to work with these student instructors. One of these instructors spoke to the whole MTGS event, and for many was one of the highlights of the week. Tears and cheers in equal measure. We expect her to be running for politics on the student voice ticket any day now.

This application of student voice has a most powerful enabling and motivational impact on the other children. They have few resources, but the approach fuels wonderful motivation for learning and improvement, as well as offering instructional support. Maybe these students could be the bridging point between my position and the student voice sceptics, since many of the sceptics seem to share a huge passion for direct instruction approaches? But maybe the naysayers belief that students are not in a position to have any say in pedagogy, as they are not well enough informed, would prevent such a bridge ever being built?


Tom Bennett: ‘Asking students to observe lessons? You may as well ask the class hamster about the best way to teach phonics’ | TES https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/asking-students-observe-lessons-you-may-well-ask-class-hamster-about

Uniformly inconsistent : Tony Parkin http://bee-it.co.uk/blogs/uniformly-inconsistent/

SSAT: A New Shape for Schooling: Prof D Hargreaves (2006) PDF http://bit.ly/2g77yi1

SSAT: Redesigning Learning overview (with links)  http://www.redesigningschooling.org.uk/campaign/background/

SSAT: Student Impact in the Redesigned School (2013) PDF  https://webcontent.ssatuk.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/RS5-Student-impact-chapter-one.pdf

Schools Voice report 2016: Quaglia Institute