Nurturing student voice is essential – but the most successful schools move beyond this to develop true student leaders, argues NACE trustee Liz Allen CBE.

Good schools are justifiably proud of systems that encourage young people to voice their perceptions, raise issues that matter to them and discuss their learning. In these schools, learners talk with their teachers and with each other, make formal presentations to peers, act as ambassadors for their school. But questions remain. Are all learners active participants? Is every student heard?  What impact do their voices have on the school’s vision, values, curriculum and pedagogy?

Great schools, I would argue, have moved on from learner voice to learner leadership, and there are many fine examples of this among both primary and secondary schools accredited with the NACE Challenge Award. Their greatness rests in students’ capacity to lead their own learning, to demonstrate commitment to each other’s achievement, and to impact on the school’s strategic development. No child is too young and no context is too difficult.

“Students highlight their need for frequent one-to-one academic conversations, that are focused on individual learning skills as well as subject-specific strategies for improvement.”Understanding the Challenge of the Exceptionally Able Learner; research undertaken by the Independent/State Schools Partnership (ISSP) 

Create a “learning together” ethos

Motivated and engaged learners are keen to take responsibility for their learning and achievement, demonstrating a thirst for knowledge and a desire to become experts. They develop an extensive, advanced vocabulary, enabling them to engage in sophisticated discourse and to reflect on and improve their own learning. 

The imperative on teachers is to create a subject-specific learning climate in which all students, in their own time, can grow to high cognitive ability and advanced oracy, enabling them to engage in deep learning conversations. As John Hattie has written, “The aim is to make students active in the learning process, until they can seek out optimal ways to learn new material and ideas, seek resources to help them and set appropriate and more challenging goals for themselves.” (Hattie, Visible Learning, 2009)

Schools that have created a “learning together” ethos encourage discourse between learners in all spheres of the school’s life and have structures in place that promote opportunities for students’ leadership of learning. Peer mentoring in lessons, students as academic and personal mentors to younger students, as buddies with students in other schools, as teaching assistants working alongside their teachers in younger classes – these all give learners the opportunity to grow into empathetic, caring adults, as well as enhancing their personal cognitive abilities.

A road map for school transformation

If our primary purpose is to give every child the opportunity and support to grow into a fulfilled adult, then it becomes imperative to engage them in the educational debate. When learners are asked, “Who do you want to be when you leave school?” and “What do you need from your school to help you to become that person?”, their answers can become the beginning of a road map for school transformation.

It takes school leaders’ courage, time and effort to place learners at the heart of school improvement discourse. The outcomes are high achievement, an inclusive and caring community and bright prospects for learners.

NACE trustee Liz Allen CBE has over five decades’ experience of working in education – including several headships, work with educational charities, and support for schools in England and overseas to raise aspirations and achievement. She is a National Leader of Education and in June 2014 was awarded the CBE for Services to Education.

This blog post is based on an article published in the spring 2019 edition of NACE Insight – our termly members’ newsletter. To view past editions of Insight, log in to our members’ site.
Monday, March 11, 2019