Exclusion: Can student voice make a difference?

By John Bayley 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that teachers talk too much. Time and again research shows us that teachers occupy 80% or more of the talking space in the average classroom. The reasons are not hard to find. We feel more in control of a classroom when we are doing the talking. The incessant demands of testing make us fearful of not “delivering the curriculum”. And it is hard for us to get rid of the idea that telling is teaching.

But telling is not teaching. Learning occurs when young people are given the opportunity to grapple with and then internalise new knowledge. Assessment for Learning has significantly helped teachers to increase pupil participation in learning. Techniques ranging from hands down questioning to using sticky notes to get student feedback on lessons all help to shift the balance of talk in lessons. When coaching teachers I sometimes get them to plan a lesson as though they have laryngitis and can only provide a few written instructions and a range of activities.

Student voice can go much wider than this. I once worked in a school where each year the head teacher selected a group of pupils from each year group who accompanied her on most of her visits to important meetings outside and inside school. In the first week of the summer holidays they joined her and a group of curriculum leaders to a retreat where they joined in curriculum planning for the following year, as well as enjoying some outdoor activities. This powerful link between the head teacher and her pupils had a profound liberalising effect throughout the school. So pupil voice can be transformative and we all need to think of how and where we can extend it in our schools and classrooms.

There is however, one area where the work has barely started. School exclusions are running at an increasingly high level and, as ever, they disproportionately affect students from minority and poorer backgrounds who are already burdened by multiple special needs. The government showed a welcome recognition of the damage caused by exclusion when they encouraged schools to stop the practice during the pandemic. The need to call an end to exclusion as a disciplinary practice is being increasingly recognised. It will require a huge review of the way we support troubled young people and considerable levels of resource. It will also require active pupil participation and the re-introduction of under-used practices such as restorative justice, student mentoring and all the other techniques we can use to bring pupil voice to bear in this area.

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