Sixth Form Student Leadership: Culture and Opportunities
In my first blog post, ‘#RoleModels’, I outlined five reasons why I believe sixth form students to be role models. In the many interesting conversations I have had since writing this, one theme has emerged; how do we create a culture in which both of the following statements ring true?
· Sixth form students believe themselves to be role models
· Students in Years 7 to 11 look up to sixth form students as role models
I believe there are two key strands to developing such a culture: overcommunication of the message alongside multiple opportunities for student leadership.
Overcommunication of key messages
Secondary schools are large, complex organisations. If we are to embed a key message as part of our culture, the message must be threaded through all aspects of our work and communication is our best tool in achieving this. My belief that sixth form students are role models who should see their position as one of both privilege and responsibility, underpins all of my communications with them, whether in person or in writing. It also underpins my communications with other stakeholders: staff, governors and parents.
It is worth considering the forms of communication we have at our disposal, in order to take a deliberate approach. We have a wealth of opportunities for communication, some of which may be much less ‘obvious’ than others:
· Speaking to groups of students/parents/staff – this could be in lessons, in assemblies/information evenings and we must ensure there is a coherence to our messaging
· Conversations – this could be in passing in the corridor, in arranged meetings, over the phone or via video calls. Our words hold weight and each interaction presents an opportunity to embed key messages
· Emails – we know students are not the best at checking their emails but they are more likely to do so if they know the emails always contain a positive message about them
· Letters to parents – begin every letter with a positive reinforcement of the key message, where appropriate
· Social media channels – having sixth form social media accounts with regular posts containing references to key principles demonstrate the school’s commitment to the message. The regularity, brevity and visual nature of social media posts mean that the key message is clear and is reinforced for all parties
· The school environment – displays and screens, both in the sixth form building and around school more widely, allow the message to be reinforced visually and, again, demonstrate the commitment to the message across the whole organisation
The combination of all of these forms of communication allow for a multi-layered approach which will quickly build a sense of positivity among the school community. The key to this, however, is consistency; we must maintain the regularity of these methods if we are to maintain the message.
This means that sixth form leaders must keep messages ‘current’. An example of this from my own setting is our response to both remote learning and students’ recent return to school. During lockdown, we, like all schools, maintained regular communication with our students and families. We were also keen to maintain the #RoleModels message, which we did via social media posts celebrating student successes during lockdown (including successes in relation to self-care and wellbeing) and by a gesture to students showing that we missed them and were proud of their efforts and approach to remote learning. We, for example, sent all sixth form students a ‘mini movie night’ pack in the post (see below) at the start of the February half term holiday. Students’ grateful responses, both via email and posted on social media, reinforced the message that we care about them and are proud of their ‘role model’ approach to their studies throughout lockdown. On their return to school, we recognised this was a further opportunity to embed this message and adorned the sixth form building with ‘Welcome Back #RoleModels’ displays and an opportunity for them to reflect on the positive things they had achieved during lockdown. Responding to the events of the day in this way helps to show our students that we genuinely believe in the key messages we are communicating, which can be very powerful.
Opportunities for student leadership
If we are keen to overcommunicate a message we must ensure we provide the opportunities for that message to be realised. In the case of our ‘#RoleModels’ message, this means providing opportunities for student leadership. As with means of communication, some of these opportunities are obvious, but others may be more surprising.
1. Formal whole school Student Leadership Teams
Most schools with sixth forms have some kind of Student Leadership Team or Head Boy/Girl set up. There are various ways of electing student leaders, but having student figureheads for the school community is widely acknowledged to have a positive impact within schools. The elected leader(s) might speak at school events, lead tours of the school for visitors, be involved in staff and sixth form student recruitment, lead on in-school initiatives or lead the student council; there are a vast range of opportunities.
In some schools, the Student Leadership Team may be fairly large (this will likely depend on numbers in the sixth form) and different roles might be assigned within the team with students responsible for key areas such as fundraising, extra-curricular sport or performing arts, diversity, wellbeing or school societies. This widening of the student leadership remit can be a real win-win; the students gain key leadership experience and the school benefits from a wider range of activities or involvement with key issues.
In lots of schools, student leaders might wear a different colour lanyard or wear a badge to indicate their leadership role, which can help to reinforce that these are positions for students in school to aspire to achieve; role modelling in action.
2. Curricular leadership
Student leadership roles connected to departments in school (in our school we call these Subject Officers) can be really useful for a number of reasons. This may help students with a desire to study a subject at post-18 to demonstrate their passion for the subject to future universities. This approach can also be beneficial to staff. The student leader can help staff within the subject area with in-school promotion of their subject, whether this be in preparing resources for or speaking at Open Evenings or other school events, contributing to the school prospectus or website, (in non-Covid times) providing/organising a team of other students to provide in-class support for students in Key Stage 3 or 4 during study periods, providing/organising student subject mentors to support Year 11 students with revision, helping with displays within the department or even creating lesson resources. If the school has a large sixth form and runs student-led societies (something I wholeheartedly recommend; more about this later!), it might be helpful to elect a subject officer alongside a society leader to ensure more students benefit from leadership opportunities.
3. Pastoral leadership
Student leaders may take the form of sixth form students assigned to lower school tutor groups. These students may lead tutor time on a weekly basis, or might take small groups of students who need support in a particular area. ‘Form buddies’ might also listen to Year 7 students reading or help with planning student-led assemblies. Having sixth form students ‘attached’ to tutor groups in this way can create a sense of aspiration in our younger students and can make our school communities more cohesive. It is also lovely to see sixth form students in these roles increase in confidence as they quickly realise that their younger peers really do look up to them as role models.
4. Super-curricular leadership
Sixth form students with particular extra-curricular interests can be encouraged to develop leadership skills through assisting at or leading extra-curricular clubs or activities. Sixth form students could, for example, coach sports teams in Years 7 to 11, lead music, dance or drama clubs, edit or write the school’s newspaper or magazine or run the school’s eco-council. If your school has a wide extra-curricular offer, there are plenty of opportunities to develop student leadership in what might be a less formal but absolutely worthwhile way. This will often involve sixth form students working with their younger peers and can have the added bonus of indirectly encouraging retention into the sixth form.
Student-led societies can also provide a powerful leadership opportunity for our students. Students might wish to set up a society in an existing school subject area, such as Maths or History, or they may wish to set up a society linked to their post-18 interests, such as Law or Medicine. Large sixth forms should be able to support a programme of societies, which might run fortnightly or even once per half term, to encourage wider reading, public speaking and engagement beyond the curriculum. Typically, a society session might run at lunch time and involve a nominated student delivering a presentation on a particular topic, before inviting questions or debate from those in attendance. Involvement in leading such a society can really enhance a UCAS application, alongside the inevitable skills gained in the process; and not just for the leader either, as those presenting vary week to week, so leadership skills are being built in all attendees, not just its leader.
Once subject-based societies are embedded, schools might feel able to support societies based on other interests. At my previous school (with a sixth form of 400+ students) we had over 20 student-led societies, including traditional ones as mentioned above, but also more ‘niche’ ones such as ‘Conspiracy Theory Society’ (which examined historical events about which there are multiple conspiracy theories), or ‘Quiz Society’ (which essentially ran a general knowledge quiz once a fortnight). This type of programme can encourage key leadership skills in those involved, but also serves to enhance the culture of the sixth form and elevates it to one much more like university; something the students seem to really appreciate and something which also reinforces the aspirational message.
Approach is key
It is worth noting that the two approaches outlined briefly above - overcommunication of the key message and multiple opportunities for student leadership – should be employed in synchrony; one supports the other. This does not, however, mean that schools should seek to revolutionise their practices overnight. In order for the culture to embed in a sustainable way, the student leadership opportunities outlined above should be phased in incrementally. It is worth, for example, embedding a clear formal student leadership structure at the outset and then phasing in the remaining approaches over time to ensure there is regular opportunity for review, involving all stakeholders. This will allow for measured but impactful improvement over time, and will mean sixth form leaders can pinpoint which elements of student leadership are working or might need amending. If everything is changed at once, it will become very difficult to pinpoint how to target improvement.
Regardless of the rate of expansion of student leadership opportunities, the approach to overcommunicating key messages should remain; this underpins the changes we seek to make and is the foundation on which we can build our students’ leadership skills over time. If we do this in a measured and timely way, responding to national and local contextual issues, our students will increasingly see themselves as the role models we already know them to be.