Monthly Archives: March 2019

Pupil voice in a sit down and shut up culture

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.

Who gets to speak.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves some challenging questions about the voices that are heard in our schools.

Challenging questions 1


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!

Who speaks at my school

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.

incompetent men

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.

help use their voice

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

Do we listen


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.

What will you do

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.


Mentoring without courageous conversation about context is like sweeping in a sandstorm



Choosing to be mentored or to mentor someone is a difficult decision. Finding someone to mentor you is no easy task. There are many things to factor in to one’s choice, such as whether you want someone who you feel is similar to you and just further along their professional journey or perhaps someone different who is able to demystify the world of work for you in a particular field, and refresh your own outlook with their new perspective. The gender, race, class, professional background, age and seniority of the person who mentors you should be important factors to you in your mentoring relationship. Whoever you choose, I would assert that mentoring needs both parties to actively engage with the political, social, economic and other contextual factors affecting both the mentor and the mentee.

Identity is for life, not just for childhood
The literature looking through the lens of race and gender in relation to mentoring seems to deal exclusively with youth mentees and attempts to close the gap of disadvantage for certain identified groups progressing through the education system, or entering into the world of work. It seems that the issues of class-based, gendered and/or race-related discrimination and systemic bias are identified as factors we can discuss and redress in youth, but discourse around this may be under-developed or even avoided in later years. Another problematic element to the literature and potential message of this focus on youth is that it hints at a need to ‘treat’ the mentee, rather than to examine the structural and systemic sexist, classist and racist mechanisms that call for additional support in the first place.

Sending the elevator back down
One of the key premises of mentoring is around addressing a deficit in social capital – we usually consider this to be a factor especially when a mentor is older and further along in their career and is able to act as an advocate for a younger, less-connected mentee – or indeed a mentee from a different socio-economic or cultural background to one’s own. In actively engaging in a more politically alert and socially committed attitude to the mentoring relationship, it could be an exciting prospect to see the mentor consciously understanding how they occupy a position of power and influence relative to the dominant societal norms around who holds power and privilege. As a mentor, one may have thought, I am lucky to be in this position of privilege and I benevolently give my time to support others who are still on their way. But what if we could go further than this and go about dismantling the notion of luck, hard work, and meritocracy being the guiding factors before we metaphorically ‘send the elevator back down’ for a mentee? Could we openly examine what the subjective barriers and enablers were in the mentor’s and the mentee’s journey to date, and what may lie ahead on the onwards journey? How exciting it could be if each party also wanted to expend time and energy on understanding and dismantling the systems which create this imbalance of social capital in the first place, and within the bastion of their own institutions and circles of influence. Is it enough to send the elevator back down, when we could even act to re-route it?

Doing the work: powerful professional learning and powerful learning for the profession
I’m on a journey reading and thinking about identity. As a straight, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman, and as someone racialised as white, the issue of mentoring has several layers of complexity for me. I believe that it is our responsibility to have courageous conversations and deliberately acknowledge and investigate the influence of race, gender and class to examine what we truly understand about how these influence mentoring experiences. Mentoring in itself doesn’t change much, unless we agree to move the narrative from a personal treatment of symptoms to a bold commitment to curing the systemic and institutional ills which create them. Moving the focus from individual professional learning towards harnessing this for the purpose of powerful learning for our professions, we could, in fact, start with the reasons for the mentoring relationship to begin with, and how each party comes to be in this relationship. This could then progress to a mutual exercise to examine context in more depth – the structures and restrictions each party may or may not face in their professional journey. Arising from this should result a commitment to work to understand these in context, as well as actively participate in work to call out and treat bias, discrimination and systemic discrimination within our own practice and our own organisational structures and practices.