In many ways, schools are about control. Teachers have twenty-five students in a classroom, and they need to ensure they are doing what they are told. Schools have rules to control the behaviour of students – albeit to ensure there is order, students are safe, and learning is occurring. Schools have leadership hierarchies designed to control the different areas of school life – learning, finance, behaviour, and faith to name a few.
I recently met with a group of Year 10 students to discuss uniform at the College. In particular, the summer uniform worn by Middle Years students including the open neck shirt and the tie worn by Senior students during the summer months. One would expect a barrage of ridiculous claims, cries of injustice and cynical jibes. I was met with quite the opposite – silence. I think they were surprised that I was asking for their opinion. Maybe it was my title as Deputy Principal – Students and the control I exert in this role which had them on the back foot or that they had never been asked for their opinion before in this context. However, once they warmed up, the boys were measured, articulate, and raised some very poignant suggestions.
While not new concepts in education, student voice and agency help to create the conditions for students to be engaged, connected, and empowered. “Student voice is not simply about giving students the opportunity to communicate ideas and opinions; it is about students having the power to influence change. Authentic student voice provides opportunities for students to collaborate and make decisions with adults… Student agency refers to the level of autonomy and power that a student experiences in the learning environment.” (Department of Education and Training, (2018) Amplify. Empowering Students through voice, agency and leadership)
I wonder how often we default to decisions as a school without consulting the most important stakeholders – the students? Student voice and agency can significantly empower students; it can ignite passions, help students feel connected and engaged in school life. Students feel important when they are asked their views, and this has an even greater impact when their views are heard and acted on.
At Whitefriars, we have developed greater student leadership opportunities at both the Senior and Middle Years. We have commissioned a Child Safety Team made up of several students and staff building a culture of protective participation with students. However, we need to continue to develop the culture of student voice and agency. The challenge is to have students actively participate alongside adults in the decision making of a school. Yes, there are times when adult school leaders must decide. However, I wonder the impact as we continue to consult with students and engage them in a participatory relationship rather than one of control. I am looking forward to continuing to empower students and walk with them on their journey at Whitefriars.
Deputy Principal – Students