I gave a presentation at a session on Pupil Voice alongside Joe Pardoe from School 21, chaired by Ed Finch at the NEU Celebrating Education conference on Saturday 30th March 2019.
I knew that Joe Pardoe would most likely be outlining the fabulous work done at School 21 on pupil voice and so I wanted to take the conversation to a different direction and to try and ask some provocative questions of the attendees. The following is an overview of my presentation.
As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.
Children and adults need to see a range of people and voices. The curriculum needs to reflect a diverse range of voices, and that includes a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities. We might need to practise switching from Shakespeare to slangspeak and back again, depending on the situation. (But should we be switching Shakespeare into slangspeak? Probably not.)
Children need to experience a diverse range of speaking styles and opportunities, and they need time for reflection and discussion that is built into the school day. This is exactly the sort of thing that is the golden thread that runs through School 21’s head, heart and hand curriculum for example.
There’s a lot of emphasis on teaching children vocabulary (or more cynically, teaching year 6 children the vocabulary we think will come up on the SATs paper, or technical terminology we think is needed for GCSE exams). But what about engaging children in etymology, and exploring where words come from, as part of our curriculum, and how they got there in the first place. You’d be surprised how many every day words and phrases have come into our language as a result of our colonial past, for example, let alone the myriad migrations to Great Britain over the centuries. (If you want to know more about this, I highly recommend the Our Migration Story resource put together by the Runnymede Trust here). We desperately need to decolonise the curriculum!
Diversity is good for business
We know from the McKinsey Report that diversity works & is good for business – so ensuring there are diverse voices being heard within the staff team, from our clients, the children, and from the local community, will lead to a more productive and happier school. The McKinsey Report found that diverse teams make better decisions, are more productive and the more diverse the voices included in the decision-making process the better. That includes a range of voices from the shop floor right up to senior management – which is why we need to include children’s voices in schools’ decision-making around policy and practice where appropriate.
Lack of diversity is dangerous – seat belts and space suits
Up until far too recently, women and children were suffering massive injuries or dying in car accidents despite wearing seat belts. This is directly related to the fact that the people designing these seat belts were men, testing them on themselves, and not considering others outside their own assumed “neutral” position, not realising that women and children would also be using these seat belts while not being the same height and weight to benefit from the design.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – role models for children and adults
A lot of people like to say that Black children need to see Black role models in schools. I do agree with this adage that if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. But I also strongly believe that white people, those people that are traditionally used to holding positions of power in our society, need to see people of colour in positions of power and authority too. We are socialised to believe that the logical leader is a straight white man. We can’t unlearn this without ensuring that we all have experienced role models that aren’t white and male.
There are ways that you can ensure that you challenge your own biases, and the simple first step would be to join the activity of grassroots organisations like the BAMEed Network, WomenEd and LGBTEd.
We are all so conditioned to accept the white man in charge that we become immune to, or at least tolerant of, incompetence when it is plain to see. How many times have you waited for someone to step up, and then wondered why they are in charge when they are obviously completely under-skilled and overconfident? This short explanation shows just why incompetent men fail their way to the top and what we can do to stop being complicit in this.
We need to change the narrative about what a leader looks like. We need to change the narrative about what people in power look like. We need to change the narrative around who gets to be heard. We are peddling a narrative that “neutral” is white and male. Have you ever tried to buy a plaster? What colour are they? “Skin” colour? Whose? Back to those seat belts and space suits, the lack of plasters, make up, hair care products, lack of understanding by healthcare professionals and more…
We need to give opportunities for children to identify what they have in common and what is different, to look at different possibilities for identity and to identify with people who are the same and different. One way to do this is through the excellent resource produced by the Finnish organisation, Lyfta. You can see a short clip here that explains how this is used at Aureus School in Didcot, for example.
Politicise them. When do children learn about politics except if they do Politics A level or if we absolutely have to, for example when there’s a general election or we need to explain to them about Brexit (not that any of us know much about that except that it is an absolute ominshambles). Schools like The London Academy of Excellence in Tottenham oblige their students to spend a compulsory half day a week on social activism and community work as part of the curriculum.
Socialisation and stereotyping should be explained and unpacked for students at as early an age as possible, and should be revisited regularly.
Enquiry-led models of learning like the Finnish phenomenon-based learning, or the Canadian Spirals of Inquiry can help students to understand about making choices and taking informed risks.
When we speak to our students, what do they hear? When we include or exclude things in the curriculum, what does that communicate? When we talk about pupil voice and we talk about the curriculum, we need to understand how inherent bias works too. Bringing Black role models for Black children is important but it isn’t enough. Teaching all children about stereotyping and prejudice is one step, but it doesn’t take away the damage that is done by implicit bias i.e. what is communicated to people of colour, for example, in explicit and implicit ways throughout their lifetime. The Doll Test is a painful and real expression of how strongly these messages are heard and internalised by children from a very young age. You can watch it here
This is one of the many pictures from the newspapers on the children’s climate change march that happened recently. The condescending attitudes to children who went on strike and marched for climate change by the media, by some adults, and among them educators, was mind blowing and yet a true reflection of our disdain of young people and youth in general.
Compare ours with social attitudes to youth and childhood in Finland and you will see a country whose youth are consistently told that they are the next leaders, that the weight of responsibility to learn today what is needed to run the world of tomorrow lies with them.
In our system, education is about numbers and letters, not even whole sentences any more.
Try taking the questions I posed at the beginning and conduct a one-day exercise using them as an audit tool at school.
Check your own bias! Be honest about where your own starting point is and think about how you build your own curriculum of learning to get to a point where you can start to implement some changes, and for the right reasons. You might find the resources on the BAMEed Network website useful.
Think about recruitment practice in your school, especially to senior leadership positions and put in a plan of action to ensure that there is diverse representation at every level in your school.
Sign up to Lyfta and the British Council training for free. You can find out more about that here
Join BAMEed, WomenEd, LGBTEd and take action. Develop your own voice on this, be heard and amplify the voices of others that need to be heard loud and clear.