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Harnessing the Power of Pupil Voice

Three pupils sat at table discussing ideas. Credit: RDNE Stock Project

In one of my most memorable annual review meetings, our Year 4 pupil sat with (at his request) a ‘proper breakfast tea’ and a digestive biscuit, and I took the role of a scribe as he ran the meeting.

He told me, his teacher, his dad and his Speech and Language Therapist exactly what worked for him, what didn’t, and how he was going to reach his future goals with our help. This child used to completely disengage from his education, but with some gentle encouragement, he’s taken full ownership of his learning journey and is thriving.

Pupil voice is a powerful tool, not only to improve learning outcomes but also to improve the quality of teaching. When done well, pupil voice can enable tailored support, increased engagement and motivation and a truly inclusive learning environment. Who better to tell us how they learn best and to help us to interpret their world than the students themselves?

It’s also their lawful right. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states: ‘Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously.’

Plan an effective pupil participation strategy with these ideas:

Question your rationale

Step one, ask yourself: Why are you gathering your pupils’ views?

Is it because you genuinely want to implement their ideas, or is it to tick a box exercise to lead them towards an outcome that you have already decided?

Unfortunately, many pupil voice exercises are tokenistic or not truly collaborative. You won’t see the same benefits if your rationale is not authentic, so it’s well worth the extra effort to question your purpose before designing your strategy. 

When I first became a Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo), I asked pupils their views from a set of pre-prepared questions to add to their annual review paperwork. Ultimately, adults made all the decisions for them. By changing the process to allow pupils to take an active role in the planning and delivery of their review, their engagement soared and we saw far better outcomes as a result.

Build pupil participation into the whole school culture

One of the most effective methods for enabling meaningful participation is to ensure that your pupils are trained on using their voices from an early age and regularly.

This can start with simple things such as inviting reception children to help plan their next class assembly. Responsibilities can then be increased as they move through the school but must be genuine opportunities for pupils to make a difference.

Your students can give you opinions on every decision that affects them, and their insights might just surprise you!

One of my other hats as a teacher was organising the school Eco Committee. The Eco School programme is a perfect example of meaningful pupil-led participation. Our pupils planned an effective whole-school strategy to reduce our environmental impact, monitored the impact themselves, planned a whole day of Eco activities and ran assemblies. They proved the power of using their voice to influence real tangible change.

Embrace alternative ways to capture voice

Direct questions with an expectation of a verbal or written answer aren’t going to work for all pupils.

There needs to be a range of ways your students can contribute ideas, with a consideration of individual needs.

‘Voice’ can refer to all kinds of communication. It may be verbal, written, artistic, or whatever works for the individual in question. Tools such as rating scales, talking mats, digital polls, photos and videos can all be useful ways to share ideas.

All pupils, regardless of any communication differences, can meaningfully contribute their thoughts and opinions. You just need to find the methods that work for them.

For one of our pupils, who is Autistic and selectively mute, making a Powerpoint presentation for his annual review was his chosen way to share his voice. He made the slides in advance and added his own spark of creativity with embedded Youtube videos and GIFs. He chose not to speak during the meeting but was excited to attend and show us his presentation. Although it wasn’t in the traditional way, we still managed to access his thoughts and plan accordingly.   

Use your observation

Another helpful method for capturing pupil opinions is through observation.

Children’s behaviours and choices can demonstrate their authentic desires and the quality of their experiences, which educators must be able to interpret and understand.

However, it is equally important to exercise caution in our interpretations which might be clouded by our own ideas.

Observations have helped me to gain really helpful insights about the needs of pupils. For example, when observing a pupil who was not engaging with learning tasks and presenting disruptive behaviours, I noticed that she was constantly looking over to the classroom door and was startled every time it opened. Through this observation, we discovered that unexpected visitors made her nervous so we experimented with moving her to a different desk and putting up a sign asking visitors to knock. It made an instant difference to her engagement in class.

Representation on your school council

Many schools opt for the use of school councils in order to involve pupils in whole-school decision-making.

Literature shows that some pupils liked this group environment, however, others hold a negative view towards councils, particularly in the cases where they were excluded from the discussions or participation was seen as insincere or superficial.

Ensuring your school council is​ a genuine representation of your school community is vital, as well as establishing a clear communication structure to ensure that all voices are heard.

Your school SENCo or Inclusion Lead can help you to plan for an inclusive council which welcomes different voices and works for everyone.

In conclusion, harnessing the power of pupil voice is essential for creating an inclusive and empowering learning environment. By questioning our rationale, building pupil participation into the school culture, embracing alternative ways to capture voice, using observation, and ensuring genuine representation on the school council, we can ensure that all students are heard and valued. By recognising the value of pupil voice, we can promote greater engagement, motivation, and learning outcomes for all students.

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The author

Gemma is an experienced writer, specialising in education and child development. With a background as a former Inclusion Leader, Teacher, and SENCo, she is dedicated to sharing ideas that make a positive impact on the lives of children.

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