Why really listening is important

Steve Dixon, second master at the Royal Hospital School, says schools should develop pupil voice to increase engagement

The idea that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is as anachronistic to school life today as writing on slates or the dunce’s cap. Education is no longer something that is done to children; it is a process in which they take an active part and, by extension, for which they take greater personal responsibility.

A significant aspect of this development has been the rise of pupil voice. Pupil voice is the umbrella term for the many ways in which children can make their views heard and feelings understood at their school.

It can range from casual conversations with teachers to more formal settings such as a school council. However it is done, the key to success is that pupils have confidence that they will get a fair hearing and that their views will be taken seriously.

From casual conversations to formal committees

At my own school we use a number of ways to make pupils’ voices heard. The majority of pupils will make use of the strong pastoral system which gives each child access to a number of trusted adults: tutor, matron, housemaster or housemistress, to whom they can talk.

Beyond that, we have a number of other forums where pupil representatives meet with staff, including house councils which work at a day or boarding house level, a food committee, a philanthropy committee which takes the lead on the pupils’ charitable endeavours and an international pupils’ committee which considers those issues pertaining particularly to our overseas pupils.

Our library committee gave useful and considered input to the plans for our recent refurbishment of that space. The pupils enjoyed seeing the tangible outcome of their views. Our e-council provides feedback on our online systems. They regularly debate our rules on mobile devices and came up with our iPad code of conduct which describes how pupils should use tablets in classrooms.

They even persuaded the bursar to upgrade the school’s bandwidth – a decision that came with a significant price tag. Our eco-committee have been hugely active in promoting the sustainability agenda which has included removing plastic water bottles from packed lunches and the introduction of ‘meat-free Mondays’.

School councils

The school council meets every half-term. It has members elected from each house and across the full age range to ensure as wide a representation as possible.

They have considered all sorts of issues that concern pupils: rules, school uniform, chapel attendance, provision of activities and even the direction of capital spending on facilities have all been discussed. I have been impressed by the maturity displayed by the pupils on these occasions.

Inevitably there have been requests for the impossible but over time this has tended to provoke irritation rather than amusement from the majority. They recognise the opportunity as precious and want to deal with realistic and constructive ideas rather than pipe dreams.

pupil voice
The Royal Hospital School

Survey data

Seeking pupil voice through online surveys has never been more important than now, when the school is operating remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is something our pupils are very used to as we regularly use online feedback to seek their views.

We even ask for anonymous pupil feedback on our teaching as part of our annual appraisal process. This caused an understandable degree of nervousness when first introduced but the reality is that the pupils know best how effectively we are teaching them, and their feedback has been incredibly positive and constructive.

Results

I have enjoyed watching pupil voice develop and I think there are a number of factors which have contributed to the success we have seen. The pupils appreciate the trust we place in them when we ask for their views and this allows them to rise to the challenge of responding in a responsible and positive manner.

Representatives on the various councils understand that they must articulate the views of their constituents and not just their own opinions. They understand that just because they ask for something, it doesn’t mean they will get it (although it is good to be able to say yes when we can).

Asking pupils to feed back to their houses on the reasons decisions have been made makes it a really useful two-way process and has improved communication between the school’s management and the wider pupil body.

The development of pupil voice has seen a commensurate increase in engagement from pupils, a willingness to take ownership of their school and provide leadership. They do this without expectation of reward (although we do run an annual pupil voice barbeque). I have enjoyed being able to step back at school council meetings as the pupils are able to run things effectively themselves.

And finally, pupil voice hasn’t ended just because the school is closed. I look forward to attending the first remote meeting of the council via Microsoft Teams next week.

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