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Turning pupil voice into pupil action

9 October 2016, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

While the Tories were gathering for their annual party conference, the headmasters and headmistresses of HMC - representing nearly 300 of the UK's leading independent schools - met 25 miles to the south, in Stratford upon Avon. The theme was 'Leading creative schools'.

And as Theresa May was herding her Tory cats in to some sort of order, the heads of HMC schools, all of whom are protective of their independence from any incorporating agency, however benign, were also searching for common ground on which to make their mark on the educational and political landscape of the UK. Do I dare to suggest, in this fractured age, that the finding of such common ground is becoming easier?

If this is so, it is for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of HMC heads are turning their attention back to their foundational missions and, even without government threats, establishing strong partnerships with schools in the maintained sector. Secondly, they are committed to considering the holistic needs of their pupils and are resolved to shun successive governments’ requirements to prioritise crudely measured academic attainment above other aims and objects.

League tables may have been useful in getting schools to sharpen up twenty years ago, but they are now almost worthless.  An increasing realization of this, not least among parents, has been liberating and allowed schools to become more innovative and creative.

The clearest message of the 2016 HMC conference was that the wellbeing of all pupils is the key to our best work. That might be the individual wellbeing of a transgender pupil or the possibilities provided for school development by those defined as “the creative disruptors” by both Will Gompertz, in a passionate defence of the place of the arts in the curriculum, and by three young entrepreneurs who provided a brilliant session on alternatives to university and the corporate life.

In my own ‘Talking Head’ at the conference, I shared the story of the particular moment when the shift “from pupil voice to pupil action” occurred at Dulwich College.

Until November 2014 pupils had been consulted on strategic planning in our School Councils and Learning Forums and through pupil voice questionnaires, but they still felt that they were at a distance from decision making; that there was only superficial or tokenistic pupil consultation.

It was the senior prefects who took up the pupil action baton first. I wanted them to go beyond being simply good role models and have authority, to learn to use it, to deal with how to overcome abuses of it and to drive the school forward, triggering an active engagement of pupils throughout the College.

The prefects were charged to carry projects through, with plenty of encouragement but minimal support. They ran a major charity event without staff intervention, learning of the difficulties of dealing with third parties. The Captain of the School was bemused to have been passed from a charity’s education department to its fundraisers and from them to its head office, only to be told he should be talking to the Head of Education. Before 2014 I may have had a CEO to CEO chat with the charity’s director, but what would the pupils have learned from that?  

And anyway, over the same period they successfully reformed the junior prefect system, improved assemblies and set up an alternative Year 11 A-level choices information evening. To ensure no reinvention of the wheel they also left a legacy document for their successors, including their self-appraisal of all their projects.

Every school will take great pride in what is achieved by its prodigies (who would have done well anywhere) and every decent school looks after its strugglers, but it's in “the middle of the middle” that there is often most value to be added. Schools are getting better at understanding this and the breakthrough at Dulwich, in turning pupil voice into pupil action, was to ensure we listened to a multiplicity of pupil voices, including the “ordinary pupils” and the disruptors.

It was heartening to hear pupils offer “It matters to me” assemblies on topics ecological and political, and to hear them countering homophobia, in and beyond school, but it was even better to discover that our selfless Year 12 light and sound technician also had a passion for the flamenco guitar.

We engaged the Secretary of the boy-run Architectural Society in choosing the architects for our Masterplan and its first major project, The Laboratory. We commissioned a diverse group of volunteer art and science pupils to work with Peter Randall-Page RA on designing the façade and with Conrad Shawcross RA on the first artwork to be installed.

The last year has also seen us deploying boys on teacher recruitment panels. They devise questions, lead interview sessions and feedback formally to me. They have proven to be incredibly astute in assessing candidates and often glean more interesting answers from them than any adult interviewers are able to.

What is needed at the end of a school career is not a copious list of achievements, but a sense of what has been learned by and through the many or few engagements, successful or otherwise. We are looking to empower boys to create change and help shape the Dulwich of tomorrow in terms of teaching and learning, the built environment, the running of events, recruitment, appraisal and the curriculum.

Are there dangers in all this? Of course. You have to be ready for the pupils to make mistakes. Their scope often exceeds their reach and schools must be explicit in communicating the role the pupils have played in affecting change. But, first and last, you have to make sure that it is all pupils’ voices that you listening to.  That’s how to lead a creative school and how to create creative schools in the 21st century – the role of creative technology in the story follows on from that and is the subject of another reflection.

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog

Turning pupil voice into pupil action