What is Student Impact?


If we are to transform our schooling system then we must truly engage with our students. While student voice or student leadership is common practice, Tom Middlehurst argues that we need to embrace a new concept – Student Impact.

The SSAT’s working definition of Student Impact is what happens “when students have a real impact on their own and other’s learning experiences through meaningful student voice and leadership”.

What we are talking about, then, is any structured activity within a school that engages with students in a meaningful way, and enables them to have an impact.

Taken at its broadest, this could include the millions of informal, day-to-day interactions between staff and students. As Professor David Hargreaves notes, “in this sense, all teachers from time-to-time encourage and are involved in student (impact)”.

However, to distinguish Student Impact from what is essentially good pedagogy, SSAT interprets the term as the more formal, planned ways of engaging students to have an impact. 

We know it is vital that we involve students in school transformation, which is why Student Impact is a key part of SSAT’s campaign to redesign schooling for the 21st century. The case for change is made by SSAT chief executive Sue Williamson in the first of a series of pamphlets, being sent to schools over the next few months.

However, it has become clear through our work that change can only be fully realised when all stakeholders are engaged in the process. Our understanding of Student Impact is drawn from best practice across the country, and from previous work on personalising learning – student voice being seen as one of the nine “gateways” to achieve personalised learning for every individual student in Prof Hargreaves’s seminal work over the last decade. 

There are several implications of our understanding of Student Impact.

Student voice, leadership or impact?

It is clear from our understanding outlined above, that Student Impact is not a rejection or departure from earlier notions of student voice and student leadership, but one that encompasses both and extends them. 

When we are engaging students in issues of school transformation, it is crucial that we use a shared language (Mercer, 2000). There is much literature on developing a language to talk with and think with students, this in discussed in depth by Emma Sims in the 2006 pamphlet Deep Learning 1.

However this language should not only apply to the content of the discussion, but also to the description of the discussion itself. When we are serious about engaging students in school transformation, we need to think carefully about the language we use to frame this, and not necessarily rely on terms that are comfortable or familiar.

The term “voice”, for instance, might suggest something ultimately passive and potentially hollow. Just because a person has a voice, there is nothing to explicitly suggest that that voice is being listened to, or even heard. Moreover, “voice” implies that the activity is likely to be nothing more than a talking-shop.

Furthermore, when one looks at the most frequent collocations (words that appear adjacent to a particular word) of “voice”, words such as “critical” and “lone” count highly. If, linguistically, we associate voice with negative feeling; the sense of needing to find a voice, why do we frame activities designed to engage students in this way? 

Although the idea of listening to students’ views about their education existed in England as early as 1816 with Robert Owen’s school in New Lanark, the term “student voice” only became widespread in educational discourse at the end of the 20th century (Cook-Sather, 2006). 

We must put this language in context: the term student voice was borne out of a system that, for many years, was reluctant to listen to student views. 

The introduction of the national curriculum in 1988 meant that discussions around curriculum and what students were being taught were often shut down and so increasingly students’ views were lost. 

The development of formalised student voice gave students a platform from which they could express their views to staff. However, such platforms are common within schools in the 2010s, so we must question whether “voice” still accurately describes the activities that take place.

In the 2000s, the discourse shifted from an understanding of student voice to an understanding of student leadership. “Student voice” came to be regarded as something of an out-dated term, with many schools explicitly identifying groups of students as “leaders”. 

Schools heavily involved in this movement developed sophisticated and coherent models of student leadership, often with a core “executive” of student leaders.

The student leadership movement in England was further promoted when the UK won its bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. The notion of student leadership became a key concern both within schools and government policy, with a number of grants and projects set up to support the development of students’ leadership skills (such as the Youth Opportunity Fund, in which young people had to be involved in spending decisions). 

On the surface, the term “leadership” does seem more positive than the passive “voice”, and student leadership remains the common term in most English secondary schools. Leadership is seen to be linked closely to emotional intelligence (Goleman et al, 2002) and with certain key character traits and values (Greenfield and Ribbins, 1993). 

Collocations of “leadership” tend to be more positive; with adjectives such as “clear” and “effective” counting highly. However, verbs and nouns that collocate with leadership are more pejorative, such as “battle”, “challenge” and “assert”. 

These are words that don’t sit easily with the popular notion of student leadership, nor with the personalised learning agenda. If we associate leadership with a sense of privilege or outstanding achievement, then we must ask “can everyone be a leader?”

Arguably, if everyone were, then the term would be meaningless. Leaders must, by definition, stand out from the crowd. If, through redesigning schooling, we truly want every student to achieve and to be empowered to make an impact, then the idea of student leadership becomes tricky. 

SSAT has therefore advocated the term “Student Impact” as an overarching, comprehensive understanding of the types of activities that students may be engaged in. Throughout our work, we have come across students who have an impact on all areas of school life, going beyond mere “voicing” of views, but not actively “leading” either.

In the 2010s, we need to recognise the range of initiatives and activities that have an impact: web and app designers, student journalists, peer mentors and educators, associate governors, tour guides, student observers, and many many more. 

The extent to which these different roles are leaders is debatable, but it is unambiguous that all of these roles have an impact. Unlike leadership, every single member of the student body can have an impact on their learning, or their peers’ learning, without the term becoming meaningless. Furthermore, a school can say it has strong student voice or student leadership, and this can be ultimately tokenistic, whereas a school cannot say it enables Student Impact unless it really does. 

It thus becomes a self-regulating term; one which schools have to measure and justify to use. A school cannot say its school council is an example of Student Impact, unless it actually does have impact. 

SSAT is increasingly finding that schools are adopting the term “Student Impact” to be more meaningful and more inclusive for every member of the student community.

  • Tom Middlehurst is head of research and head of student impact at SSAT. Visit www.ssatuk.co.uk

Further information
SSAT’s work on developing the concept of Student Impact will be explored in its forthcoming pamphlet, due for release in January 2014. For details on the SSAT Redesigning Schooling campaign, visit www.redesigningschooling.org.uk
  • Mercer, N. Words and Minds: How we use language to think together, (2000), Routledge
  • Sims, E. Deep Learning 1, (2006), SSAT
  • Cook-Sather, A. Sound, Presence, and Power: “Student Voice” in educational research and reform (2006), Curriculum Inquiry V36 I4
  • Goleman D, et al,  The New Leaders (2002), Time-Warner
  • Greenfield, T., Ribbins, P. (eds.) (1993), Greenfield on Educational Administration: Towards a humane science, Routledge


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin