I recently wrote an article in SecEd on behalf of SSAT in which I argued for the concept of “student impact” as a progression from traditional notions of “student voice” and “student leadership” (What is student impact?, SecEd 358, September 19, 2013).
But what do we really mean when we say impact? Obviously when we consider the extent to which students can have impact in schools, we are not always talking about large-scale impact, but also the day-to-day wins that build trust and develop relationships over time.
It is thus useful to consider the extent to which students are being asked to participate in a project, before the project actually starts. At SSAT, in our work on student impact, we have found it useful to adapt Roger Hart’s eight-level ladder of participation (1992) into a seven-level ladder which can be more readily shared with students of varying ages and abilities. The adapted ladder of participation combines two of Hart’s levels, leaving:
Directed and leading
Directing and leading
The first three levels are negative forms of activity, when students are not having genuine impact. The later four levels are positive, when students can be expected to have impact, albeit to different degrees.
When students are manipulated, they are being actively used or coerced into activities that they have no say in and might fundamentally disagree with.
Of course, there are times within school when students will have to do things that they are opposed to, and this is to be expected, if not encouraged, as part of daily school life. However, the problem comes when activities framed as student voice, leadership or impact are in fact tools for manipulation.
Often this is likely to be unconscious manipulation, for example when staff seek a student mandate to justify certain activity. This unconscious manipulation is why it is so important to be explicit about levels of participation with both staff and students.
Decoration is a less pejorative term than manipulation, but must nonetheless be avoided. Decoration is the sort of activity that it is easy to revert to when these things are not discussed explicitly; it is likely to occur when student activity is not scrutinised or its purpose not debated.
Why, for instance, have a student dance performance at an open evening? Is it to impress potential parents? Or is it to give the students a chance to perform to a real audience? Neither reason is more valid than the other, as both will have an impact on the students’ school experience, but having that clarity of intention and purpose avoids it being mere decoration.
Tokenism is the emergency setting of schools; when staff believe that they have to tick a box to impress senior leadership, governors, Ofsted and other stakeholders.
Tokenism does not just happen within student impact, but across school as well: whether it’s the tokenistic Assessment for Learning strategy deployed when an inspector walks into the room, or perfectly presented but ultimately meaningless and unused pages of data. Tokenism can be avoided through long-term and strategic planning, so it does not become the go-to setting in moments of crisis or stress.
The notion of students being both informed and consulted are perhaps the two activities most closely associated with traditional forms of student voice. Students are meaningfully informed when staff share relevant information with them, because staff believe they need to know it, rather than just a token gesture.
Again, this can be ensured when the purpose of informing students is made explicit; being clear on why the students need to know something, rather than just assuming they do.
Similarly, it is easy for consultation to become tokenistic. Staff may illicit student views about something, and then completely ignore them, never explaining to the students involved why their ideas were not realised. Not only is this not meaningful impact, it is potentially harmful and will damage trust.
However, this is not to say that when students are consulted, staff must always act on their views. Rather that the adults engaged clearly explain the process of the consultation. In this way, even if students’ views are not carried forward fully, students understand that they have had a meaningful role in a wider process.
Yet again, the intention of the adults consulting students must be considered here: are they consulting young people because “it’s the right thing to do” or because they genuinely want to know and understand the students’ perspective to inform their decisions?
Meaningful consultation can be an extremely interesting and sometimes surprising insight into the sophistication of students’ views about their learning and experiences.
Directed and leading
When students are directed and leading, they are being given a mandate by staff or other stakeholders to lead on a project.
This is, for many schools, the first level in developing very tangible student impact. While students being meaningfully informed and consulted definitely do have an impact, it is not always immediately noticeable or measurable, as it tends to lead to a long-term change in culture and relationships.
Directing and leading
In contrast, when students are asked by staff to lead on a project, the whole school community can usually see the impact. This might be a discrete project, such as organising a charity event or conducting a research project, or ongoing activity such as a school council running its own meetings. At this level, although students may be leading the project, the direction ultimately comes from staff.
As a culture of trust and dependence is built through informing and consulting students, and students develop confidence by leading on projects given to them by staff, students themselves will begin to direct their own activity.
For example, a student researchers team may be asked to do a research project by senior leadership (directed and leading). In carrying out the research, the team may identify areas for future research, which they then plan and undertake themselves (directing and leading). Activities in which students are directing and leading themselves will only be successful when there is a culture of trust and when students are engaged, responsible, mature, collaborative and independent.
There is a persistent belief that schools should always be aiming for the highest level of participation, reinforced no doubt by the metaphor of a ladder, which suggests a hierarchy. Yet a school with a strong culture of student impact will not always expect its students to be directing and leading themselves.
Providing all activity is meaningful (i.e. is not manipulation, decoration, or tokenism), it does not matter whether students are being informed, consulted, directed and leading, or directing and leading. There are times when it is not appropriate for students to be leading on a project, but that being informed is very meaningful. This should not be seen to undermine the students’ participation, providing the rationale for this is strategic and shared explicitly with the students.
What is far more important is that students are told or agree together upon their level of participation before a project is started. Even with the clearest intention of why students are being informed rather than asked to lead, this will ultimately be tokenistic unless that intention is shared with students in language that is accessible.
Tom Middlehurst is head of student impact at SSAT, where he is also head of research and director of the SSAT national conference. Visit www.ssatuk.co.uk
- Read Tom’s original SecEd article on student impact at http://bit.ly/1eReyf6
- Hart, R, Children’s Participation: From Tokenism to Citizenship, (1992), UNICEF International Child Development Centre.