Student Voice

From early on in my teaching career two approaches were promoted by schools I worked in:   

1. Make a fuss of the small stuff – particularly with regard to pupil behaviour. 

2. You walk past the standards you accept. 

By constantly reminding students to tuck their shirts in, do their ties up, larger behavioural problems are far less likely to emerge. By constantly reinforcing standards, expectations are abundantly clear to all. 

Now that I am a Headmaster these tenets still hold true – we still remind each other to make a fuss of the small stuff and I have quoted the second recently in an INSET day to all staff. 

The same rigorous approach, however, has not consistently been applied to the use of language in schools – in any schools – and in Everyone’s Invited and in the countless testimonies of misogyny, coercion, abuse and assault, we see the consequences of this failure. Schools are desperately trying to understand their own cultures, desperately turning over stones to see what lies beneath. We have not always made a fuss of inappropriate language and we have on occasions walked past standards we should not have accepted. 

Schools now see that there is an unbroken line between relatively minor uses of poor language and more serious openly discriminatory language and through not challenging the former, the latter has been allowed  to thrive. The use of such language is often out of earshot, but it has become endemic in schools and has come to dominate and define school culture. 

Student voice is central in helping us tackle this cultural decline, but as leaders of schools, there is a clear balance to be struck between use of pupil voice and delegation of responsibility. At the Dixie, we have actively used student voice to impact and change the school since 2015 – and not just through a vibrant Student Council. His Honour Judge William Ashworth was our guest of honour at our 2015 Prize Giving and he urged Dixie students to use the power of their voices to change their school for the better. The Ashworth Board is immediately outside the Headmaster’s Office – for students to post hand-written letters requesting change. Their requests receive a handwritten reply and have led to significant changes, including to uniform policy in which a removal of the distinction between ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ has been fully introduced and to catering, school trips, facilities and our approach to diversity.  

Conversations with alumni alerted us to the fact that historically, the culture in school might not have been what we thought it was in their day. Through extensive conversation and careful listening to the concerns of current and former students, we have adopted a more proactive approach than ever before and can see the more open and tolerant community we strive to be taking shape. We are hugely grateful to those who have contacted their old school to highlight the need for change, and delighted that our strides forwards and strength of student voice are recognised in our impressive inspection report, February 2022. 

Without students feeling they have a voice in school, how will they find their voice in their own community and in turn make positive changes in wider society and beyond?

Richard Lynn 22 March 2022

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