It is often the case that pupils are asked to give their opinions on a range of issues facing schools, through pupil forums, assemblies and prefect bodies. There is a large body of academic literature outlining the benefits of the process and the methods for encouraging this (Bragg and Fielding, 2005; Cook-Sather, 2002; Flutter and Rudduck, 2004; Lodge, 2005). However, ensuring that the feedback is taken into consideration and is given a platform to communicate with senior management, is something that requires commitment and needs to be carried out in a way that ensures that the feedback is constructive and can inform decision-making processes. The reality is that teachers might find both comfortable and uncomfortable truths when asking for pupil feedback in school improvement (McIntyre et al., 2005).
Our school recently launched a teaching and learning (T&L) strategy. This is to ensure that the experiences the boys have reflect a learning environment that transcends the boundaries of exam success. However, in order to inform our strategic thinking, we needed to consult with the boys in which areas they thought we should focus on (for another example see Morgan, 2009). Although the feedback we received was not in itself revelatory, it served as a reminder of what areas schools perhaps need to place renewed emphasis on. With this assumption in mind, we hope for the initial evidence to form the basis of a much more sustained and impactful way in which pupil comments are fed back to what happens in the classroom, and to create an inclusive environment wherein pupil agency is of primary importance.
The cohort at the school consists of boys aged 13 to 18 years old. Even though there are more than 1,000 pupils at the school, we decided to run these initial focus groups with a small number of boys (n=30), who were selected based on their interest in teaching and learning. They were selected by House Masters and staff who are shaping the T&L policy. Even though the sample was not randomly selected in order to represent boys from all academic attainment levels and interests, it was our belief that their feedback could form the basis of a much more systemic approach to collecting feedback and understanding what initial areas the T&L policy would need to focus on. The focus groups were conducted by an external person who had previously done some work with the school, and was therefore familiar with the environment. We believed that having someone external to the school conduct the focus groups would enable pupils to be more truthful and perhaps reduce social desirability bias towards their teachers or other staff at the school.
The below areas, although somewhat self-evident, can prove a starting point in what a T&L policy could focus on, taking into consideration pupil voice and what matters to them. The broader areas can initiate discussion within and across departments. It is also a way to hold students accountable for their own learning, since a criticism often heard across staff common rooms might be that a lot of the student criticisms derive from their not being proactive enough and not taking responsibility for their own learning.
Students enjoy consistency in some areas of teaching, although this does not mean that teachers have to have the same teaching methods across the school. Even though the students would welcome consistent teaching approaches, they also expressed great respect for teachers who are passionate about their subject and eager to transmit this passion and knowledge to their pupils. Students also noted that teaching can become subservient to the curriculum as exams become central to what the teachers are trying to do. This is often meant as a criticism not to the teachers but to the system more broadly. Although exams are vital, they should not be seen as a benchmark of success and, taking into consideration student well-being, students need to be reminded that success can take many forms.
Homework and feedback
The role and purpose of homework and the ensuing feedback is something that is widely contested across schools. Schools often tend to have departmental or whole-school policies on feedback and marking of homework; however, these policies might not always be followed by all members of staff. Moreover, students often do not respond to the feedback they receive, oftentimes only looking for the grade attached to the piece of homework or other formative assessment. The various policies that schools might put in place are not always followed by the teaching body, and pupils expect feedback but without always responding to it. Some of these considerations were raised in our focus groups. Pupils suggested that there needs to be a more streamlined approach as to what purposes homework and feedback have. Interestingly, they also suggested that they would like to be challenged.
It is proven that low-stakes testing is beneficial for students and their retention of information. However, pupils are getting increasingly disillusioned with testing that is aimed at exam success. Students acknowledge that formative testing is needed, but very often these kinds of tests, which are habitually adopted by many schools, do not allow for the pupils to discover their true potential. Since the exam system is structured in a way that does not allow for much freedom when designing the curriculum, it is worth considering how structures can be put in place for pupils to have the ability to move beyond the limited parameters of what abilities the exams dictate to be of value. Exams, more broadly, only test and reward very specific skills (which can often be achieved by cramming); therefore, schools need to consider formative assessment that examines wider abilities and skillsets.
Teachers need to think about how they can create a learning environment that allows for trial and error. Very often, pupils might feel safer in their silence, either because of the fear of making a mistake or because those who are more confident, able or quick might give the answer quickly enough for the teacher to move on to the next question. Teachers might want to consider how thinking time can be extended to allow for deeper thinking to happen and to discourage students from resorting to flash soundbites. Students who took part in our focus groups consistently mentioned how being challenged and stretched beyond the exam syllabus is very important to them, alongside being given the opportunity to explore the nature of the various subjects in some depth. Giving these opportunities can be a powerful way to differentiate and encourage deeper engagement with the subject, moving beyond the subject.
The time and syllabus constraints posed by exams was one of the main concerns of pupils across the year groups. Although this is not something that the schools can easily change, there is scope to allow for more in-depth exploration of subjects, which can lead to more reading for pleasure. However, where the schools can provide support is in the process of transition between GCSEs, and the structured approach they entail, to the more independent style required by A-levels. Students need to possess the tools to make the transition and be able to cope with the more autonomous approach of the last two years of schooling.
A note of encouragement
Even though pupils can criticise some of the practices of teachers and readily point to things that they believe need to change, they are also eager to recognise what the teachers do well. Even though a rich curriculum and co-curriculum are always priorities in pupils’ education, there is a growing need for provisions for well-being within schools. Therefore, feelings of acceptance and tolerance, respect between pupils and between pupils and teachers, active listening within the school community, and moral support are all things that students tend to value highly. The ability to participate in co-curricular activities and engage with opportunities that give a glimpse of the real world is also something that students value and name as one of the elements that they appreciate in their education. It is important to remind students and teachers of the widely encompassing nature of education and to allow for opportunities that span the breadth of the curriculum and co-curriculum.
Most of the points raised above are very likely already known to teachers and senior management teams. However, the purpose of giving pupils the voice to express their concerns and what they value is that it allows for an open and honest dialogue and encourages a more conducive learning environment. Conducting these focus groups and collecting some initial data is not the end-point in the process of incorporating pupil voice in the strategic thinking of how we shape teaching and learning policies. It is, however, a positive way to engage pupils and understand where some of their priorities lie. It is interesting to see that well-being and a deeper engagement with subjects were two of the most mentioned issues by students. By collecting initial data, we aim to put in place structured interventions that will shape T&L practices and engage pupils in a more meaningful way.
Bragg SG and Fielding M (2005) It’s an equal thing… It’s about achieving together: Student voices and the possibility of a radical collegiality. In: Street H and Temperley J (eds) Improving Schools through Collaborative Enquiry. London: Continuum, pp. 105–125.
Cook-Sather A (2002) Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational Researcher 31(4): 3–14.
Flutter J and Rudduck J (2004) Consulting pupils: What’s in it for schools? London: Routledge Falmer.
Lodge C (2005) From hearing voices to engaging in dialogue: Problematising student participation in school improvement. Journal of Educational Change 6(2): 125–146.
McIntyre D, Pedder D and Rudduck J (2005) Pupil voice: Comfortable and uncomfortable learnings for teachers. Research Papers in Education 20(2): 149–168.
Morgan B (2009) Consulting pupils about classroom teaching and learning: Policy practice and response in one school. Research Papers in Education 26(4): 445–467.