Gag the Student Voice

April 8, 2007

One of the latest daft ideas to become fashionable is “Student Voice”, the idea that the kids in a school need to be consulted before decisions are made. If you view schools as social institutions whose main purpose is to provide entertainment for the students then this view makes perfect sense. If you view schools as academic institutions, whose main purpose is to educate children then it makes considerably less sense. Given that the main obstacles to educating children are those students who do not want to be educated and do not want others to be educated then this approach is likely to be on a par with asking the police to consult with muggers and asking doctors to consult with infections.

Of course, it depends on the school. I previously wrote about the questionnaire at Woodrow Wilson School that revealed that the students wanted stronger discipline, and the worst behaved students removed from their classes. However, Woodrow Wilson School had quite a strong middle class intake, supportive parents and strong standards of discipline in most of the primary schools the students had arrived from. Many students there were shocked when they arrived to see how out of control the students were, and new year 7s would take several months to adjust from the politeness and order of their primary schools to the rudeness and chaos of Woodrow Wilson. The opinions of most students, particularly the younger ones, reflected that they had an interest in learning that was being disrupted by the poor discipline and mixed ability classes.

By contrast, the intake to Stafford Grove School had no such bias towards learning. When they were consulted their opinions made it clear that what they wanted most were “fun” lessons (i.e. ones with no actual work in) and group work (i.e. sitting with a group of friends chatting). It is here that I realised that the Student Voice not only didn’t need to be listened to, it needed to be actively suppressed. Certain classes put forward their opinion quite forthrightly. The main elements of that opinion were:

  • We shouldn’t have to work if we don’t want to
  • Working is boring
  • Our conversations are more important than anything the teacher says
  • We can treat teachers how we like
  • How we do in our exams depends on the teacher not on us
  • Teachers shouldn’t expect us to follow the rules and any attempt to enforce those rules is unfair and personally motivated

These attitudes were all-pervasive and any effort to change them would be resisted with verbal abuse and even violence. This culture is fairly common in schools nowadays and it makes the very concept of consulting the students meaningless. Any survey of students at Stafford Grove will show a significant (but not universal) preference for lessons where work is optional and for teachers who are undemanding. I’m not speaking here from a position of being a particularly disliked teacher, I have a 4 out of 5 rating and positive comments on ratemyteacher from my time at Stafford Grove. However I soon discovered this had resulted from students who liked my taste in music (hard to believe) rather than anything related to teaching. Nobody’s going to win over students there by helping them learn.

The worst idea I’ve heard suggested as a way to increase the Student Voice is to let students play a part in interviewing and assessing job candidates. Perhaps there are schools where the students are so dedicated to learning that the ability to teach is the main criterion they would consider. This is not the case in any school I’ve taught at. I would leave on principle any interview where students were to have a say.

If you wouldn’t, then don’t be surprised if your feedback after the interview is something like this:

“Well I’m sorry to say that you didn’t get the job. Our interview panel raised a number of areas of concern. Firstly, you didn’t let them have fizzy drinks and the panel felt that’s so gay, man. Secondly, you support Everton and Everton are gay. Thirdly, your mum’s a ho and so’s your nan. Let us know if you’d like any more feedback or to ask any more question about the interview process. Thanks for coming to the school.”


  1. Quite so – as Lear’s fool says, “thou gavest them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches.”

  2. The worst idea I’ve heard suggested as a way to increase the Student Voice is to let students play a part in interviewing and assessing job candidates. You mentioned this elsewhere (the anonymous questionnaire?) and I almost did not believe it. Un*****believable. Isn’t this another example of what you call “appeasement”?

  3. is here that I realised that the Student Voice not only didn’t need to be listened to, it needed to be actively suppressed.
    You are talking about your specific situation, presumably, not as a general principle. Else how do you explain the successes of school councils e.g. at Summerhill and similar institutions in the States?
    We give class questionnaires annually where I teach, and some teachers have quite rightly questioned the value of these (i.e. do we have to pay any mind to opinions of students who rarely show up, don’t bring pen or paper, etc)?
    On the other hand, I can imagine that actively suppressing “student voice” and being explicit about it, might piss students off (even more than they are already).

  4. What “success”?

    And if we worry about pissing off students we are already doomed to begin with.

    • I do have to be concerned about pissing my students off, because they are paying customers, not prisoners like your lot. That doesn’t mean rewarding bad behaviour, of course.

      But I do agree: you are doomed! Everything you write here adds weight to Gatto’s conclusion: public, compulsory schooling cannot be fixed. If you’re a parent, homeschool. If you’re a teacher, good luck.

      • Sorry, that doesn’t follow at all. The vast majority of countries avoid the mess British education is in. Schools in Britain avoided it until the sixties.

  5. Excuse me, but I’m a 19 year old student who has been through the education system and you seriously expect me to listen to adults telling me what to do. omg!!!!! Hello??? thats where we’ve been failing to provide. Also by striping young people of the the Freedom of Speech you are infringing human rights which makes such a practice illegal and immoral.

    • Hmmmmmmm.

      Can’t decide if you are a troll or not. 19 seems a bit old for someone to still be unaware that they lost out significantly in life when they went to a school which valued their opinions but didn’t tell them how to use an apostrophe and the “I know my rights” bit sounds like a wind up.

      On the other hand, it didn’t end with “innit”.

  6. Well Ryan, we have all been through the education system, its just that some of us also have an additional perspective through simple age, experience and profession.

    Freedom of speech is fine but there has to be limits. Like incitement to racial hatred for example, or interrupting lessons cos ‘you fink this is borin’ or insulting fellow students.

    you may not like doing as you are told, none of us do I suppose; but your frame of mind is ‘me 1st, everyone 2nd’. The teacher is trying his/her best for everyone in the room. They are paid to issue instructions to that end. You just have to follow them.

    It takes some people years or decades to realise their pent up feelings of resentment and frustration at school were perhaps not quite justified.

  7. I will not stoop to the childish level of bothering to respond to your personal attack.

    Anyway, in response to your comment Rob, I agree in part with what you are saying, however the examples quoted do not accurately reflect the veiws expressed by the majority of students. The vast majority of children are actually able to express themselves in a acceptable way. If you were to come to one of our meetings you could see for yourself.

    With regards to your final point thats the whole reason for me joining the Student Voice which is to provide a positive outlet for that resentment and frustration.

  8. Hi Ryan,
    Having been to the Student Voice website I suspect you are fairly moderate in your views and have altruistic intentions.

    The trouble is, in most schools, the student council is a core of 15 well behaved students with sensible ideas. But the other 1485 students are often immature, selfish and belligerent.

    Some real examples of comments when I have had disucssions in tutor groups about what students would like in their schools

    1. We want chips
    2. We should be able to go out at lunch
    3. We dont want homwork
    4. Detentions should be banned
    5. Uniform should be optional
    6. We shouldnt have to be respectful to someone we dont like
    7. I shouldnt have to sit next to someone I dont like
    8. We shouldnt have any tests
    9. We should be able to sack any teacher we dont like
    10. Maths (ugh) should be optional
    11. Assemblies should be otptional
    12. Punctuality should be optional

    At the age of 13 I would have totally supported these ideas. Now, nearly 3 decades later I recognise them as unhelpful. And thats the problem. When can democracy start? Should I let my 5 yr old daughter eat earth? Its her choice isnt it? Should I strip her of her rights?

    I dont wish to sound mocking but the examples I have used are real ones.

  9. Sorry, I meant to add a 13th:

    We want clean and tidy toilets.

    But as I have expained to many a student council memeber

    “You do” “by law you have clean and functioning toilets at 8.30 every morning”, “the trouble is that by 9.00 they have been vandalised by the very people you represent”
    “OK, put in cameras!”
    “Um you cant put cameras in toilets”
    “OK- put in a security guard!”
    “you mean several secrutity guards one for each sex and each toilet…. oh and how would like to pay their wages?”

  10. […] I want to quote this blog on Student Voice as it gives an insight into what we might be expected to deliver in order to move […]

  11. […] Business consults service users and tailor’s product to their needs. Education increasingly sees learners as passive recipients of knowledge and attempts to consult are considered as a threat to the autonomy and expertise of teachers. […]

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