Moving from Student Voice to Stakeholder Voice
Throughout the pandemic I have found myself reflecting on the role of student voice within sixth form provision. I have come to the conclusion that whilst a multifaceted approach to student voice is an essential tool in ensuring improvement, much greater improvement might be made if we meaningfully seek and, (where appropriate and possible) act upon, the views of all stakeholders: students, staff, parents and governors. As Andy Buck (2018) argues, “Only if you engage effectively with others can you as leaders at any level make change happen.” If we want to make positive changes to sixth form provision then, the “others” we must engage with are all those with a vested interest in what we offer.
This blog post attempts to outline some possible approaches to student voice alongside suggestions for widening stakeholder voice within the 16-19 phase.
One of the reasons I aspired to lead within the sixth form phase is because I see sixth form students as role models. Part of the reason I hold this view is because students of this age are so passionate in their beliefs, and – when given the freedom to do so – express them willingly. Whilst students of this age group are often very passionate about issues affecting others, they are extremely vocal when it comes to issues affecting them directly. Recent examples of this being the case have been in students’ responses to the Ofqual/DfE consultation on alternatives to this summer’s exams and in the huge response to the ‘Everyone’s Invited’ website. As sixth form leaders, we would be mad not to harness this passion in order to drive improvement for the students in our care.
The potential power of student voice/pupil voice has long been acknowledged within education, with research conducted since the 1980s by the likes of Stenhouse (1983), Goodlad (1995) and Flutter and Rudduck (2003) all suggesting that harnessing the views of students is fundamental to success in schools. In fact, the scale of research into student voice is huge; a useful summary can be found on the Soundout.org website. Teaching unions also recognise the importance of student voice, with the NASUWT publishing its guide to student voice in 2016, outlining principles for ensuring best practice. What does effective student voice actually look like in practice though?
Most schools have embedded student voice strategies into their everyday practice with student councils, student involvement in recruitment processes and student voice aspects to their monitoring and evaluation of teaching and learning. How can we add to these practices within 16-19 education?
In a previous blog post, I discussed the opportunities available for student leadership within 16-19 education and, within all the examples I cited, there are clear opportunities for students’ voices to be heard, whether as Subject Officers, members of the Student Leadership Team or through being involved in particular groups or societies. What we may not recognise though, is that in good sixth forms, we often seek out student voice in a less direct way. I have listed below some of the less obvious student voice practices that often happen within strong 16-19 provision.
· Emails: email contact from students is a powerful, and probably largely unrecognised, form of student voice. If students regularly email sixth form leaders, we can assume that they feel it is worth their making contact: they feel confident they will get a response. This form of informal contact should not be underestimated. It is often via email – especially over the last year – that key information is shared with sixth form students by staff (much more so than with younger students), but we mustn’t forget that this exchange often takes place in reverse. Students who may be reluctant to verbally state their views to members of staff in person often feel more confident to raise their issues via email. Whilst all teachers are keen to keep their inbox as empty as possible, we should be pleased that our students feel they can make contact with us via email as it underlines that they have faith in the fact that we value and appreciate their views.
· Corridor chats: again, this is an unquantifiable form of student voice. I often discover students’ thoughts and views about what is going on through stopping to chat with them in passing. This might be on the way to lessons, when either they approach me with a “Miss, can I just ask you something…?” or, often, I will wander around our large study spaces at break or lunchtime to chat to students in person. When they are enjoying their social time during the day, often they are relaxed and willing to talk about things they may not seek out staff to discuss themselves. There is something much more comfortable for students in chatting to a senior member of staff in passing than there is in approaching them in their office. This removes a layer of formality and means leaders can quickly ascertain students’ general feelings about the issues pertinent to them at any time.
· Social media: we know that students spend a lot of time scrolling through their social media feeds. Sixth form accounts can be a useful way of gauging student engagement and feedback. The number of ‘likes’ or comments on posts can give an indication of how well-received events or initiatives have been.
· Observations by tutors, mentors, support staff and teachers: within tutor time, it is easy for tutors to ascertain whether there is general consensus about issues, especially once students are a few months into Year 12 and have settled into sixth form life. This might be through whole class or small group discussion, but might also be less directly, by tutors overhearing conversations on arrival, for example. If there is strong feeling (either positive or negative) about issues facing sixth form students, they will always want to discuss it with their friends! Likewise, support staff might have a different relationship with students and so may gain feedback that teachers might not. This informal feedback from staff can be really useful for sixth form leaders in responding to events or planning for the future.
· FAQs: In the periods of disruption over the last year, schools have found themselves surveying students’ experiences of remote learning in order to hone and improve students’ learning experiences. Alongside this, the uncertainty caused by the cancellation of exams has meant students have been left with numerous questions about what will happen, how it will happen and how it might affect their futures. We decided that throughout this period of uncertainty, we would seek to reassure our students as much as possible in order to minimise their stress throughout this time. Using a very simple Google Form, with one box to complete anonymously with any questions students had, we were able to regularly get an overview of the key concerns of our students. This meant that we were quickly able to generate Frequently Asked Questions responses to all questions raised and email these to students; both during the period of remote learning and once students returned to school. Their questions covered a wide range of issues; many of which we as staff would not have predicted, so using this method has ensured we are better able to respond to the concerns of our students, and whilst often we have not been able to give definitive answers (in the context of the DfE/Ofqual consultation for example), responding with what we can communicate has helped to maintain transparency and build trust. The FAQ approach is something we are likely to maintain beyond the pandemic as the anonymous and open nature of this form of student voice seems to have helped to reassure our students; something useful in any school year, not just because of the disruption caused by Covid.
The above examples combined with the direct student voice strategies routinely employed in schools should mean that our students’ views are heard and can be used to inform decision-making. Geraldine Rowe takes this concept further in her recent book, Our School, It’s Our Time: A Companion Guide to Whole-School Collaborative Decision-Making, in which she suggests that staff sharing decision-making with students can empower them and can even help to close the disadvantage gap. She argues in the Preface to the book that “…of all aspects of pupil voice, collaborative decision-making (CDM) has the potential to make the greatest impact on well-being and educational outcomes.” Whether schools choose to support this theory and involve their students to this extent is clearly an individual decision, but the fact that some schools are prioritising student voice in this way shows how far we have come in education. I would argue that the 16-19 phase is one in which this could be achieved, once a culture of valuing our role models’ views has been established.
The 2016 NASUWT guide to student voice sets out seven principles for effective student voice. The third principle established is as follows: “Student voice should be an effective method of identifying the concerns and interests of pupils. It should offer opportunities for pupils to feel that they are able to engage with and influence developments within their school. This must be part of a whole school approach that values and encourages the contributions of all members of the school community, including teachers.” The final sentence here is important – we should be seeking “the contributions of all members of the school community.” I would like to outline some suggestions for how we might do this. I’m sure there will be schools who do this brilliantly already, but it is certainly an area I would like to develop in the sixth form I lead.
A school’s relationship with its parent body is crucial to its success; this is why most schools report home to parents throughout the academic year, hold parents’ evenings and maintain regular communication via newsletters. This is also arguably one reason why Ofsted has a ‘Parentview’ website through which parents can give feedback via a survey about their child’s school; either during an inspection or at any time. Most schools will also survey parents at least annually to gain their feedback and inform practice; something which may well have happened more regularly during the pandemic in order to gain feedback about remote learning provision.
At sixth form level, engagement with parents is crucial. This is why most sixth forms will run parent information evenings ahead of students joining the sixth form to explain systems and processes that are unique to Key Stage 5. Sixth forms might also invite parents to information evenings about post-18 routes, so that parents can successfully support their children through the unique processes involved with applications for post-18 destinations. However, as mentioned above, some of the more informal ways of ascertaining student voice also apply to parents and should not be overlooked; email and social media are two good examples. I am looking for other ways to engage with parents so that our sixth form students can be as supported as possible throughout their time with us; whether this be via webinars on particular topics that may be of interest, such as supporting study skills at post-16 or adolescent mental health or by possibly creating a parents’ forum at regular intervals throughout the year. I’d welcome other ideas for engaging parents at post-16 so please do get in touch if you have had an idea that has worked well.
Clearly, staff are key members of our school community and therefore, if we are going to value students’ views in our decision-making processes, we must also consider the views of our staff. Teachers at post-16 are subject experts and their insight, especially since they teach our post-16 students so often each week, is invaluable.
Staff surveys can be incredibly enlightening. This is something I found on taking up my current role when, on the first September training day, I sent out a very simple survey to all staff (teaching and associate) with three questions:
1. What would you say is the biggest strength of our sixth form?
2. What would you say is the biggest area for development?
3. Is there anything else you’d like me to know about our sixth form?
The simplicity of the questions meant I was able to gauge very quickly what staff perceived to be the key issues to address. Sharing the responses with all staff subsequently in the form of word clouds also enabled me to demonstrate that I had looked closely at their responses and allowed me to outline plans for how I was going to address key issues raised. This approach is something I plan to do twice each year – it needs to happen more than once so that I can identify whether staff feel we are addressing the right issues but not so often that it becomes just another job for our busy staff to add to their ‘to-do’ lists.
Again, many of the informal ways of learning about staff views are similar to those for students: emails, corridor chats and social media all apply in the case of staff too. One additional and important means of gaining staff feedback is through meetings – whether they be large leadership meetings or one-to-ones with Heads of Subject, every meeting is a learning opportunity about staff perception in addition to the items on the meeting agenda.
The benefits of staff voice seem obvious – it is another way of driving improvement. Consulting staff in this way, though, can create an additional benefit for the staff themselves. As Jo Steer (2020) argues in her excellent TES blog about staff voice: “When people feel that their opinions are valued, they'll be more open to sharing, speaking and collaborating…. there’s no better way to boost job fulfilment, self-worth and create positive momentum.”
The role of the school governor as the ‘critical friend’ to the school is one that should not be omitted from this discussion. By their very nature and purpose, governing bodies provide their views on all aspects of school policy and practice every time meetings or communications take place. Particularly when there is a new initiative or policy, their input is necessary and often provides a very different and strategic perspective that allows school leaders to make decisions ensuring all stakeholders’ views are considered. Governors inherently question, suggest, critique and promote the work done in schools and so ‘governor voice’ naturally underpins school improvement. Interestingly, governors often ask about the views of other stakeholders when a new policy or initiative is being put forward, as a way of measuring the possible impact of suggested changes, recognising the need to consider all parts of the school community in any decisions taken.
It is clear that school improvement in general, but particularly improvement at Key Stage 5, has the potential to be accelerated and enhanced if the voices of all members of the school community are heard and acted upon, where appropriate. Whilst the methods of gaining feedback from our community might vary over time and due to circumstance or context, stakeholder voice is key to our success and we should work hard to ensure that we consider all members of our communities if we are to do our young people justice.
Buck, A. (2018) Leadership Matters 3.0: How leaders at all levels can create great schools (Woodbridge, John Catt Educational Ltd.), p.195
Goodlad, S. (1995) Students as tutors and mentors (London and New York, Kogan Page)
Rudduck, J. & Flutter, J. (2003) How to improve your school: giving pupils a voice (London and New York, Continuum Press)
Rowe, G. (2021) Our School, It’s Our Time: A Companion Guide to Whole-School Collaborative Decision-Making (Oxon, Routledge)
Stenhouse, L. (1983) Authority, education and emancipation: a collection of papers by Lawrence Stenhouse (London, Heinemann Educational Books)