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I Have A Voice by Jonathan Owen, Associate Headteacher at West Thornton Primary School
At West Thornton Primary School we begin each year with a discussion about what we want for our children and our staff: this is displayed in our schools as The West Thornton Child and The West Thornton Adult.
As the world changes, especially in recent times, the specific skills, learning experiences and characteristics that we want for our children can also change; but some things – including the core values of our school – always remain. One other constant is that we want each child in our school to have a voice: we want each child to have opportunities to share their voice; and, we want those voices to be integral to the education in our school, not an addition to it. At a coffee morning this term, we were pleased that parents noted not only that our global curriculum is tailored to our specific communities, but that the children themselves regularly contribute to curriculum design and what they are learning; ‘I like that the teachers include the children in class (lesson) preparation, (Year 2 parent, September 2021). We want children to contribute, speak out and disrupt existing narratives both in and out of school, both now and in the future. So how do we do this? Many of the ways we hear pupils will not be new to readers and one or two of our current practices or future plans might be. In this blog post, I will share a few of our most impactful methods for amplifying the voices of our young people and explore why more traditional pupil voice surveys don’t work for us.
Whether you have recently had a visit from Ofsted or not, you will all be aware of the prominence of pupil voice in recent inspections. Many would argue this is a positive step, as children’s voice is powerful and arguably accurate in determining what has been learned in a lesson or series of lessons, especially when collected alongside a book look. And so the ‘deep dive’ approach now features prominently in our self-evaluation processes. This week, leaders at West Thornton have captured pupil voice and looked at outcomes with children; but they have also asked children to join them when carrying out lesson observations. When watching a reading lesson with a Year 3 child, and maths in Year 2, I saw things that with nearly 20 years of teaching experience I would not have seen. Pupil voice can help you understand how children learn and their attitudes to learning: ‘the Dienes are there in case we can’t do it writing on the place value grid. You don’t have to use them but they are there to help you check. Some people still think it’s bad if you use them.’ It can be reassuring that your pedagogical practices are working: ‘We used to get confused, but now our teachers always remind us of what we already know so we feel like it’s not going to be so hard. That’s what we already know [points to live learning.]’ Pupil voice can also be startlingly honest: ‘This is a bit boring today. We usually do group work which is better because our friends can help us.’
Somekh (2001) and Faber and Mazlish (2006) touch on the concept of parrhesia and it’s importance in Education. A relationship between a person of lower authority, or younger age who in speaking and being actively involved reveals a truth (their understanding) which the person in authority (in this case a teacher or member of support staff) learns more by listening and not judging. It is because of this that we remain obliged to seek the voice of leaners and place this at the heart of what we do. Currently, the Junior Leadership Team conducts numerous activities including ‘pupil voice’ questionnaires. When posing questions about learning, experiences in school, and things that could be improved, it transpires, unsurprisingly, that when children are asked questions by other children they often give more direct, blatant and therefore useful answers. The JLT carry out learning walks (with and without members of staff); undertake book looks; present to governors; and, carry out their own pupil voice. Children are also responsible for upholding standards. In the tweet below, a panel of Junior Leaders is deciding if the children’s handwriting is of a high enough standard to be awarded a pen license.
Our Inspire Curriculum also provides numerous opportunities to promote and champion pupil voice. One example of this from last year, under the global theme of Sustainable Development, is when Year 4 children organised numerous silent protests and wrote persuasive texts regarding the waste and lack of recycling in our school. Being vocal about the changes they wanted to see and about how our practices would affect their futures more than our present, this pupil voice had a real impact and led to this whole school priority:
As the first image in this post shows, part of what we want for the West Thornton Child is for each individual to be able to articulate his or her feelings in a clear and appropriate way. We want them to have grit and determination. The pupil voice surveys used in the past, with surface indicators such as ‘I learn well in my lessons’ can only go so far in determining how we can improve the education in our schools. We believe that the voices and influences of our children are essential in continuously improving our curriculum offer, and we also collate pupil voice to support with pastoral care (for example, our worry boxes below) and by modelling appropriate language around feelings, so that our children can articulate, reflect on and self-regulate their behaviour.
We strive to put our children at the heart of decision-making and see them as partners in the every aspect of school life. We believe in leadership at all levels and facilitate this through some of the roles mentioned above, as well as: play leaders – who tell us how we might improve break and lunchtimes; reading buddies – who feedback on what younger children need more help with and the types of books we might purchase; and, class ambassadors, who greet visitors, explain the learning they are engaging in, and provide an accurate barometer of how successful the delivery of our curriculum is. Ruddock (2004) shares our view as a school explaining that ‘student voice’ lies at the heart of a school because it ‘becomes a community of participants engaged in the common endeavour of learning’. In doing so they reflect the ‘…democratic structures in society at large.’ Moving forwards, we are also excited to introduce librarians, digital leaders, peer mentors, language ambassadors and The West Thornton Gardeners – all coming soon because of direct feedback from our amazing children.