As a headteacher I am extremely passionate about the importance of listening to all stakeholder’s voices, in particular our staff, families and young people. However, I believe that listening to others voices must lead to action, otherwise it becomes little more than a tokenistic act. In addition, people need to be consulted on things that matter, things that will impact positively on their life experiences.
Giving people a genuine voice, a voice that leads to action, empowers them and gives them a sense of purpose and an opportunity to shape the practices of the school. This is particularly pertinent for our young people with a new curriculum being designed in Wales based on Professor Donaldson’s Successful Futures Report which states that we need a curriculum that will enable our students to become ethical and informed citizens.
I work with the school council in my school, Lansdowne Primary, in order to create meaningful opportunities for them to work on things that matter to them, and because they matter to them, they matter to the whole school community. A recent example of how their voices have led to action is when a member of the school council raised a concern that although the teachers give them written feedback that they do not find it particularly useful because there is little time to act on the feedback.
As a staff we had developed a whole school approach to marking which both focused on celebrating the student’s successes and also giving them support to develop their ideas and work further. This had been done jointly with the staff and young people, piloting and feeding back on different methods of marking. However, although this was a joint piece of work, what we had not fully appreciated was that without dedicated time for the young people to act on the feedback, that the teacher’s writing comments in the students’ books was largely a waste of their time. It quickly became apparent when I looked at student books with the school council, students were simply initialling teacher feedback to acknowledge it, but that without time for them to revisit their work in order to use the feedback purposefully that it was not helping them to develop their work further.
Working with the ideas of the school council, we changed our planning so that it included dedicated time for students to act on teacher feedback, a small change that had a significant impact on the ability of the students to have meaningful learning opportunities that improved the standard of their work, and something we may not have fully appreciated if we had not listened to the ideas of the young people.
As a school we are very proud of the importance we place on listening to our student’s voices and we create many opportunities to do this, both in their lessons and in pupil voice groups including our DiGGON group which examines LGBT rights in the school, and our Pupil Leaders who support me as the headteacher to develop positive relationships, and thereby the well-being of all our learners.
However, I have always been very conscious that although we try to ensure that these different groups are representative of the whole school community, and that there are clear lines of communication and meaningful opportunities for consultation between the representatives on these groups and the other students, that not every young person in the school sits on a group and this limits their capacity to have a voice in how our school continues to develop. I have found two things to be particularly useful in engaging the wider student population of our school in conversations about things that matter to them and these are Philosophy for Children and VocalEyes.
Philosophy for Children, or Philosophy with Children as I prefer to call it in acknowledgment that it is about engaging in dialogues with young people, is a pedagogic tool that can support teachers to facilitate enquiries with young people around things that matter to them. It begins with a stimulus to provoke thinking, and from here young people generate questions based on what they want to explore.
As a school, we have been engaging in conversations around what a child friendly city might look like using Philosophy with Child as a tool to support us to do this. Through our enquiries together, the students have discussed many things that they would want to change in our city Cardiff, in order for it to become more child friendly.
These things include parents not working at weekends so that they have more time to play with their children, shops not assuming that young people are going to be disruptive, by having signs in the window that limit how many young people can enter at a time, but do not make such stipulations for adults, and real concerns about the number of homeless people in Wales and the impact that this has on both the wellbeing of the people that are sleeping on the street and on the young people that are witnessing it. Facilitating these enquiries it quickly becomes apparent that these young people are democratically engaged, and have valid things to contribute to the development of our city.
The other tool that has had a really big impact on supporting us to engage a wider student audience than just our members of specific pupil voice groups in democratic conversations is VocalEyes. Our school council had decided that they wanted to apply for funding to improve facilities in the playground. They spent time investigating the playground to see how it could be developed, looking at what was in other playgrounds, and investigating what is available to buy or create on the internet.
They used this information to come up with 10 ideas that they wanted to develop in the playground, including building a reading shed where students could choose to go and read during breaktimes, and adding astro-turf to our sports arena to minimise injuries when students fall over.
The school council then worked together to rank these ideas in order of which they felt was the most important, and which were most likely to have a positive impact on the experiences of our students when they use the school playground. However, we wanted to engage all of the young people in the school in this ranking and VocalEyes was the democratic platform that enabled us to do this.
Peter, from VocalEyes came in and spent a day training our student council on how to add ideas to our own Lansdowne page, how to rank the ideas and then how to help others to rank them. The school council members then worked with different classes to engage young people so that they could rank the ideas themselves for the playground.
Not only were the other students able to rank the school councils 10 ideas, they could also add their own ideas and could leave reasons for why they did or did not like an idea. Peter then returned to work with the school council again to support them to be able to analyse the information on the Lansdowne Page. Being able to do this has enabled the school council to democratically engage a much wider audience in a conversation about how to improve the school playground than they would have been able to do before.
Using VocalEyes has also been an important way for us to deliver different aspects of the Digital Competence Framework. It has created meaningful opportunities for our students to use ICT, using a form of social media in a way that is democratically conscious. Social media is such an integral part of young people’s lives, and VocalEyes is an excellent platform to help them to understand that it can be used in more ethical and informative ways than just sharing photographs and amassing friends.
The UNCRC requires that we listen to young people’s voices, and Wales ambition to reduce the voting age to 16, are both key drivers for us to introduce tools and ways of working with young people that support them to become engaged with what is happening both in their schools, and in their wider communities. This will not only make them interested but also make them aware of how they can make a positive impact on their communities, and to recognise the importance of the democratic process.
It also helps us as adults to appreciate how much we have to learn from our young people. As a school community, we have benefited greatly from engaging with our young people, as their ideas have helped to shape and make better the practices and teaching practices that we use. I am very excited to see how the new curriculum will prioritise and further establish a commitment in Wales for us to engage our students in conversations and matters that are important to them, and important to shaping the future direction of our city and our country.