Student Voice: Including the Seldom Heard

— By Denise Kelly

Student Voice is an area that is being highlighted by many schools at the moment.

Denise Kelly is a former Principal of a DÉIS School, Deputy and Headteacher in International Schools in Spain, Director of Schools for City of Dublin Education and Training Board. She worked for five years as an Education Officer in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Denise now works as an Education Consultant.

Denise Kelly is a former Principal of a DÉIS School. She has held positions as Deputy and Headteacher in International Schools in Spain, and as Director of Schools for City of Dublin Education and Training Board. She also worked for five years as an Education Officer in the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). Denise now works as an Education Consultant.

Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992, and it is fair to say that until recently schools in Ireland have largely met their obligations by ensuring they had a Student Council.

It is also fair to say that in many cases this was fairly tokenistic, with student councils comprising the more self-confident, articulate, high-achieving student-ambassadors.

This tokenism would have been highlighted if the operations and effectiveness of the Student Councils had been audited using the Lundy Model of Child Participation, so-called because its creator is Laura Lundy, Professor of International Children’s Rights at the School of Education in Queen’s University of Belfast.

Method of conceptualizing a child’s right to participation

Lundy’s model, detailed in a 2007 publication in the British Educational Journal, is core to the Irish National Children’s Participation Strategy (2015), and has been adopted by international organizations such as the European Commission, UNICEF and global NGOs such as World Vision.

It provides a way of conceptualizing a child’s right to participation, as laid down in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is intended to focus decision-makers on the distinct, albeit interrelated, elements of the provision. The four elements have a rational chronological order: space, voice, audience, influence.

Key components for implementation

The fact that Student Voice now appears to be attracting the attention it deserves may in part be explained by the imminent publication and implementation of a Parent and Student Charter, discussed elsewhere on the Education Matters site. Whatever the rationale for schools currently focusing on this area of school life, there are key components that ought to characterize its implementation.

The first four, as mentioned above, form the basis for Professor Lundy’s model[1]:

Space: Children must be given safe, inclusive opportunities to form and express their views

Voice: Children must be facilitated to express their view

Audience: The view must be listened to

Influence: The view must be acted upon as appropriate

Adulteration

There are at least two other important elements to Student Voice. The first is what Dr. Paula Flynn, Assistant Professor in the Institute of Education, DCU calls adulteration. As well as drawing attention to the seldom-heard students in schools, this is the term Dr. Flynn uses to describe our unintentional tendency as teachers to impose an adult interpretation and language on student feedback from a consultation process.

The advice to schools is to avoid doing this by checking with students that what was heard and documented by the adults in the school was in fact what students said and meant.

Inclusiveness

The second additional critical element of Student Voice has to be the methodologies used to ensure that this essential feature of schooling is as inclusive as possible. Hearing the voices of the seldom-heard was never more important in our schools.

Even as I write, the Covid-19 crisis is forcing us to reflect on how inequitable distance learning is for some students in our society because of barriers to their learning. I’m not just referring to the frequently quoted lack of modern communication technology. Although this goes far beyond the question of whether disadvantaged students have access to a device.

The barriers are created by a cluttered interface, buttons and links that are too small, and other important navigability considerations that can render entire sites and functions unusable to a significant cohort of our children.

However, beyond the accessibility of technology, many of our young people already face other diverse barriers to learning such as economic deprivation, hunger, lack of facilities to accommodate their visual impairment or blindness, lack of sensibility to their sensory issues, or the fact they are non-verbal, creating learning environments which adversely affect concentration, placing demands on them without acknowledgment that they are carers to parents. The list is endless.

It is these same barriers to learning which affect the child’s sense of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy. These are the very students whose voices need to be heard. However, theirs are often the voices most difficult to elicit.

Questionnaires – the need to plan them carefully

Well-intentioned schools are diving into the area of Student Voice by creating and distributing hastily devised questionnaires on topics as diverse as homework to healthy eating and how to make teaching and learning more engaging. However, there is much more to consider and plan for:
– What is it that we want to find out by consulting our students?
– How do we know we’re asking the correct questions?
– Are we ready to hear things we may not like?
– Are we prepared to act on the feedback we receive?
– And critically, how do we ensure we are facilitating the voices of the seldom-heard?

All of these questions need to be answered in consultation with teachers and some also with students.

Student Voice Toolkit for Schools

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) toolkit for schools on Student Voice has ready-to-use templates for schools that want to start on the journey to embedding Student Voice in their culture. This is exactly how it needs to be approached. Student Voice should not be yet another ‘initiative’. It needs to be part of ‘what we do around here’.

The DCYA toolkit asks critical questions about the readiness of teachers for Student Voice. It also provides prompts for schools to use in each of the planning, implementation and evaluation phases of any Student Voice activity.

A common error

One of the most common errors that I have found in working with schools on Student Voice is that they are inadvertently failing to identify the shortcomings of questionnaires. It is easy to see how seductive a questionnaire is as a tool because it can be created for a mass audience and modern software allows for quick analysis.

However, when I ask a school staff group how they think the questionnaire will facilitate the voice of the child with dyslexia, or a young person with Autism for whom the questionnaire’s design has not been audited for accessibility, or how accessible the school will make it for a young person who does not have Wi-Fi, they frequently admit that at least some of these are considerations they hadn’t made.

Applying the Principles of Universal Design

We are thankfully becoming increasingly aware of how Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can positively influence planning, teaching, learning and assessment. The same principles can and should be applied to designing Student Voice consultation instruments.

It is only by carefully designing a range of methodologies – questionnaire, focus group questions, Diamond Ranking[2], visual, verbal or tactile cues and so on – that we become more successful in making student consultations available to the greatest range of students.

If we do this, we stand an improved chance that we will avoid segregating or stigmatizing users, provide for privacy and security of young people; provide choice, facilitate accuracy at the user’s pace, provide appropriate prompting, and eliminate unnecessary complexity.

Let’s spread the word!

Many readers will be familiar with the publication Cherishing All the Children Equally? Ireland 100 years on from the Easter Rising written by Emer Smyth, James Williams, Elizabeth Nixon and Dorothy Watson in 2016. It comes to the depressing conclusion that based on the evidence presented throughout the book, it would appear that the answer (to the question in the book’s title) must be NO.

Schools around our country are keen to address the equality and equity questions. They are very open to hearing the messages articulated in this article and want to act on the suggestions offered here. Let’s spread the word!

NOTES

[1] Readers are urged to research the Lundy model of Child Participation and the UN Convention on The Rights of the Child for a fuller nuanced rationale and explanation of the key elements listed here

[2] Diamond ranking (also known as “diamond 9’s”) is an activity that has been used in classrooms with students to – for example – explore and clarify their value positions, feelings and thoughts on a topic, and is usually carried out with pre‐written statements (Rockett and Percival, 2002)

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