Student Voice: Are we listening?
It’s a point of ongoing puzzlement to me that by and large, education policymakers don’t seem to prioritise the importance of student voice in school communities.
The establishment of a Student Representative Council (SRC) is a recognisable gesture in the right direction, and can serve as a handy device to create the illusion that students have a role in school leadership.
However, in reality, school systems and structures do not readily lend themselves to guidance and leadership from those very people whose needs they exist to serve. And from my observations, those obstacles to student voice generally emerge from systemic and procedural requirements like standardised testing and over-crowded curricula. These, combined with our traditional views on what constitutes appropriate classroom authority, are what lie at the heart of the problem, rather than any school’s real desire to silence its community of learners.
There is a mountain of academic research and anecdotal evidence showing the correlation between student agency, resilience and school engagement. And as adults we experience the same phenomenon. Of course, when our views and opinions are heard, validated and acted upon, we feel more powerful. We respect ourselves and others. We feel inclined to participate, transact, and share. No surprises there.
Why then, do we assume that students, at any point along the educational pipeline, should respond any differently? Why do we expect that young people will be automatically fulfilled by their position in the lowest tier of a school’s hierarchy of influence?
Coming back to the tried-and-trusted SRC model, let’s consider how it generally works. Often, the SRC of a given school will meet on a regular basis to plan key events in the regular calendar, for example assembly items or fundraising days. With permission and support from a couple of designated teachers, they will plan, execute and evaluate those events, as did the SRC before them, and the one before that. This is all of immense value of course in maintaining and promoting school culture and tradition. But it doesn’t drive change or improvement.
Sometimes, the SRC will be called upon by the student body to communicate specific issues to the ‘real’ school authorities and decision-makers. And often, those issues are urgent and challenging. Currently, for example, some schools are addressing students’ requests for appropriate and dignified bathroom facilities that accommodate the needs of transgender individuals. Clearly the SRC is an important and credible conduit for information sharing between the layers of that aforementioned hierarchy.
In my view, it’s time to more genuinely foreground and prioritise the contribution of students to whole school leadership and improved school culture. The efficacy of student voice in driving long-term organisational change can be diluted by inevitable leadership churn – but this is often also true for teachers.
So how do schools mitigate against that risk? With a management plan of course! No self-respecting school principal would attempt to lead and manage such a complex organisation without a considered, strategic, agile and achievable guiding document against which the school’s achievements can be fairly measured and reported.
So, what if we take the fundamental elements of an everyday school management plan template and re-imagine them, to become a powerful tool for enacting leadership and agency from within the student body? A visionary, strategic, targeted, measurable and importantly, well-resourced plan which empowers the student leaders of a school community to independently articulate their vision, define their priorities and strategic goals, measure progress towards their targets and ultimately report on their success.
I’m sure this isn’t a new idea. But if we honestly mean it when we, as educators say we value student voice, then surely we have an obligation to listen.
I’d love to hear your thoughts or work with you to make this a reality in your school.
Samantha Skinner is the General Manager of Halogen Australia. With 20 years of diverse experience in the Australian secondary and tertiary education sectors, Sam has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to share. She is passionate about leadership and helping young people reach their full potential. In her spare time, Sam manages and enjoys a busy family life and getting active outdoors.