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Student Voice

Could conventional, democratic, approaches to student voice be undermining pupil’s engagement with school?

I spent a year observing pupils in a South West school and found they had good relationships with teachers when there was mutual recognition of the issues faced by both parties. Student voice works best when pupils understand the role of their teachers. Children know teachers run the school and are in charge. But they also feel the school should be run in their interest, and they should have a share in decision-making. There is a danger that if they don’t feel they are listened to they will exercise their voice in a negative way, by not complying with rules.

Schools must do more than only pay lip-service to student voice. They should do more to really listen to pupils. Children know very well that they hold the power to be disruptive, and teachers should to more to work with them to use this power in a constructive, rather than disruptive way. My research suggests good relationships with teachers is more important than any mechanisms to introduce an element of democracy such as student councils, which are not sufficient to promote student voice. Just creating democratic structures isn’t an effective way for the voice of students to be heard. The quality of relationships is the foundation of effective voice. Students need to recognise and be recognised. The perception of student councils is often that they are easily co-opted into simply following the agenda of a school’s senior leadership and this often leaves pupils disengaged, choosing to exercise their voice through non-compliance instead.

Efforts to increase “student voice” in schools need to be better organised to give children a genuine chance to have their say. Teachers should focus on working on a smaller scale in order to provide different ways for pupils to air their views in a positive way.

Non-compliance as a substitute for voice is published in the journal Research Papers in Education. To read the full article (for free if you are one of the first 50 people to use the link!) go here: https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/M7UHFnTx7Fbj9T5YDrmr/full?target=10.1080/02671522.2019.1633564

Tom Ralph is Senior Lecturer in Education, Subject Leader Secondary Mathematics PGCE and PGCE Secondary Programme Director at the University of Exeter: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/education/staff/profile/index.php?web_id=thomas_ralph

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