​The power of pupil voice can transform a school

Posted on 13th Dec 2016 in School News, Which School?

Adam Williams, Headmaster of Lord Wandsworth College, says that students hold the key to their own success...

At the age of seven, I started at a rather traditional school where surnames prevailed. As the youngest of all the Williams’, Williams VII was the start of my academic journey. It was with some delight therefore that after four years, I reached the heady heights of Williams I; an accolade based solely on age, rather than the impact of my ideas and actions. Was pupil voice alive and well in this environment? I’m not so sure…

140 years earlier, Oliver Twist plucked up the courage. Jane and Michael Banks sought help from Mary Poppins, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies took us a little too far and we heard at first-hand about the lives of pupils in the classic films of The Breakfast Club and Harry Potter.

Pupil voice is utterly integral to modern education and in a world where 65% of jobs have yet to be envisaged for those most recently born, our schools cannot possibly hope to prepare young men and women for specific roles in the world to come, rather we must strive to give them the tools and the opportunities to forge their own way. Being able to have considered opinions, communicate clearly, bring people with you using empathy, passion and clarity of thought are key, but from a platform of experience: a platform that we must provide. In short, schools must seek to hand over much of the influence, power and direction of their education to a generation that sits eagerly in front of us in the classroom with iPad and skinny latte in hand.

With genuine opportunities to make a difference in schools, pupils are capable of quite remarkable things, and not just one’s sparkliest school prefects. They are digital children in a world of analogue leaders and deserve to have opportunities beyond school councils and commenting on end-of-term reports. It started with Article 12 of the UNCRC but in the most progressive of schools, pupils are involved in policy making, building design, teacher appraisal, governance direction, PR and marketing to name but a few.

I have been fortunate to see the power of the Pupil Voice in full flow in my most recent schools, and it has been a genuinely humbling experience to witness the way in which the focus is not around day-to-day operations, but around legacy creation and making their communities more open-minded and tolerant: the older generations have much to learn.

Schools, and indeed the government, are beginning to embrace and invest in character education and this is both a highly commendable and valuable proposition. The caveat, of course, is to avoid discrete and isolated lessons on courage, for example, and trite phrases such as “we’re doing character,” but by bringing the power of the pupil voice alongside, the effects can be transformational for a school and communities beyond.

Several years ago, I sat in a board room with 20 pupils facing me, each having written a dastardly question for an aspiring Deputy Head; it remains the toughest interview I have faced. Soon after, a group of these pupils sat across the post-modern table of an award-winning architect’s firm and guided the design of a building, a street and a philosophy to the tune of close to a million pounds because they genuinely believed the current proposals did not fit the way in which they and their successors would use this environment. Seeing their vision become a reality 18 months later and the way in which these spaces were used (the architectural parlance became ‘hubs/pods/nests’, of course) proved the point emphatically.

Empowered: engaged: valued. These are watchwords and a modus vivendi that we must advocate for our pupils in a brave new world that moves beyond the flipped classroom to one of flipped leadership. Our greatest challenge though is to prevent conservatism in their decision-making, and it is our role to encourage and champion the road less travelled, backed up with lashings of dynamic data and a healthy dose of ’courages, mes braves.’

For more information about Lord Wandsworth College, see their profile page on School Search.