A whole-school approach means listening to the voices of everyone in the school community and this includes children and parents/carers as well as school staff.
Children can offer unique perspectives on what it is like to be a pupil at their school; involving them in decision-making can create meaningful change and better academic outcomes, as well as facilitating a sense of empowerment and inclusion.
What is it and why is it important?
Children’s voice in schools means a whole-school commitment to listening to the views, wishes and experiences of all children. It means placing value on what children tell school staff about their experiences and recognising that they are the experts on what it is like to be a child and a pupil in the school.
Children need to be provided with meaningful opportunities to share their experiences, views and hopes about their school. We know that the school day is jam-packed and that adding even more to the workload may seem daunting, but involving children early means that we don’t miss out on what is actually going on. Children need to know that it is safe and that it is important for them to express their views on what happens at school. They need to know that what they say is valued and will be listened to and considered.
Schools with a strong commitment to pupil voice have reported many positive outcomes. These include a reduction in exclusions, better behaviour, better relationships across the whole-school community, and improving attainment and attendance – all of which can also improve Ofsted ratings.
What does it look like in practice and how can we work towards it?
There is no one way to promote the voice of children in a school; every school is different with a unique cohort of pupils. Here are some ideas a school might use to get started:
- Create regular opportunities for children to share their views with each other and school staff.
- Vary the ways in which children can participate; for example:
- School councils can make useful contributions to shaping school life but only a small number of children can get involved and some may find this type of formal engagement challenging.
- Holding a class ‘circle time’ meeting to discuss the agenda of the next school council meeting can be an effective way of encouraging all pupils to contribute in a non-threatening environment.
- Assemblies too can provide opportunities to make sure pupils understand a school’s commitment to knowing what children want and need.
- A ‘suggestion box’ placed in the entrance hall or in each classroom, with the contents shared at the school council meetings can also be effective.
- Many schools have a ‘family group’ system where the school is divided vertically (e.g. from 4–11 year olds) into manageable groups which meet each week and discuss a range of themes and issues; often PSHE-related. Decisions and comments can then be passed onto the school council, staff, senior management team or head teacher. These family groups can also encourage older children to care for younger pupils and to become role models.
- Consider how to ensure that all children are being heard, across each age group. How will you overcome language barriers? How will you make sure that the younger or more vulnerable and/or quieter pupils are listened to? What about those pupils who don’t enjoy being at school or those who don’t attend regularly? Make sure that it isn’t only school council members who get their voices heard.
- Make sure consultation is varied and includes many different aspects of school life. For example: the curriculum, how children like to learn, facilities and the physical environment of the school, break times, after-school clubs, uniform, welfare and bullying. Consultation must have clear, published actions, otherwise there is a danger of pupils feeling that school staff are just going through the motions.
- Make sure the values and ethos of the school reflect the commitment to children’s voice. Is it included in school statements, school action planning, the website, classrooms and any other publications that talks about whole-school values?
- Embed children’s participation into all aspects of school life rather than just seeing it as an add-on. Ask children the best way to promote participation and ensure their voices are heard within the school and wider community. They will have great ideas. Trust them!
- Review regularly; something that worked once might not be working now. For example, involve children in reviewing the anti-bullying policy. Does it work? What needs to change?
- Trust parents/carers and involve them in decision-making. For example, introduce a ‘parents/carers’ forum’, where issues can be discussed and views can be sought.
Secure commitment from the governing body, the senior leadership team and all staff so that children know their voice is important.
If children are requesting lion-taming lessons instead of PE the school is unlikely to accommodate this. Make sure children understand the scope of their participation.
Give regular feedback to children. If they have put time into contributing they need to know the outcomes.
Get it right
Remember that bad consultation is worse than no consultation. It can be demoralising and damaging if children thought they were being listened to but the process was just box ticking.
Show respect and a real interest in children’s ideas. Don’t be judgemental but point out, where appropriate, that in life we don’t always get exactly what we want.