Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that national governments shall:
‘assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.’
The provisions of Article 12 have significant implications not only for the work of schools and education, but also for other children’s services, including family law, social care, health care, and youth and criminal justice.
Protecting and enhancing the right of children and young people to be heard and participate meaningfully in decisions that affect their lives is a key duty of the state in a democratic society. It is, therefore, a particularly important principle in the context of the state’s responsibilities for ensuring universal access to well-funded and high quality education.
The NASUWT believes that there are seven basic principles that should be reflected in the development of student voice policy and practice at school level to ensure that student voice is effective and supported by the whole school community.
Principle 1 – Student voice activities should make a positive and demonstrable contribution to the life of the school.
The NASUWT believes that student voice is most effective where it encourages pupils to become involved in projects and activities that enable them to enact genuine change within their schools, their communities or the wider world. Student voice activities should not be run for their own sake or simply to enable the school to comply with external requirements
Principle 2 – Student voice activities must not undermine teachers’ professional authority and must not compromise other fundamental rights of children and young people.
A key criterion for assessing the appropriateness and acceptability of any student voice initiative involves a consideration of the extent to which teachers’ professional authority is supported or undermined. Any student voice practice that is used to make judgements about a teacher’s professionalism and so has the potential to undermine teachers’ professional authority is unacceptable. Unfortunately, the NASUWT has received examples of schools using student voice to question teachers’ capabilities. Not only is this unacceptable employment practice, it is likely to create suspicion and resistance and undermine any benefits of student voice.
Principle 3 – Student voice activities should be part of a system that values and respects the views of all members of the school community including staff.
Student voice should be an effective method of identifying the concerns and interests of pupils. It should offer opportunities for pupils to feel that they are able to engage with and influence developments within their school. This must be part of a whole school approach that values and encourages the contributions of all members of the school community, including teachers. The NASUWT believes that student voice can only be effective if a school has developed and embedded mechanisms for ensuring that all members of the school community are able to express their views and ideas in an open and constructive environment that welcomes constructive feedback.
Principle 4 – Policies and practices on student voice must reflect the capacity of pupils to participate in particular activities and the extent to which they can reasonably be held to account for the results of their actions.
Students should be encouraged to explore, develop and participate in school life as well in the life of the school community as a whole. There is strong evidence that where students share a strong and positive affinity with their school, they are likely to be better motivated to learn. So, for example, students may be encouraged to take on responsibilities such as being a school prefect or monitor.
Nevertheless, whilst schools will want to encourage students to take greater ownership and responsibility for aspects of school life, there are school level responsibilities and tasks that should not be undertaken by pupils. Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child implies that students should not undertake activities that require professional skills and expertise. These should only be undertaken by qualified and skilled persons who are accountable for their decisions and actions through their status as employees or governors.
Principle 5 – Student voice activities and polices must be consistent with and support work to promote equality and diversity and tackle discrimination and prejudice.
Legally, schools have a duty to promote equality. Therefore, tackling discrimination and prejudice, promoting equality and fostering good relations should be embedded within all aspects of school life, including activities related to pupil participation and student voice. It is vital that approaches to student voice recognise and progress equality, anti-discrimination and inclusion within schools.
Principle 6 – Approaches to student voice must be inclusive and give all pupils an opportunity to participate.
Student voice should enable students to respond to issues that can affect all students. It also provides opportunities for students to take responsibility for themselves and for others, develop an understanding of the relationship between rights and responsibilities and develop skills in representing, negotiating and debating. The NASUWT believes that all students should be encouraged to develop these skills and that schools should, therefore, develop strategies to encourage all students to become involved in student voice.
Principle 7 – Student voice activities must not add to teacher and headteacher workload or school level bureaucratic burdens.
Approaches to student voice and pupil participation must not work against efforts to tackle excessive teacher and headteacher workload and working hours. Where student voice policies have been developed appropriately, they should contribute towards reducing bureaucratic burdens on teachers and headteachers and free them to focus on teaching and leading teaching and learning.
The NASUWT’s detailed advice and guidance that sets out how these principles should be put in practice. It explores issues including the role and function of school councils, pupil behaviour management, pupil involvement with staff recruitment and the participation of children and young people in school governing bodies.