John J. Taylor has worked in international boarding schools for almost 20 years, serving as a Housemaster, Vice Principal, and Principal, including working in the Middle East. John is a deputy safeguarding lead, Director of Studies, and Vice Principal at MPW London, where he led the opening of boarding from scratch in January 2023 in the newly refurbished building opposite Kensington’s iconic Natural History Museum. John is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and of the BSA’s new Institute of Boarding.
Teenagers often need to be convinced that adults are actually listening to them. When I think back to my own adolescent days, the number of teachers who instructed me with phrases such as ‘do as you’re told’, ‘stop asking so many questions’ (which I did!), and ‘stop talking when I’m talking’ probably made me even more likely to want my voice to be heard. Not everyone is like me, however, and the quieter students in my classes were probably never heard at all.
In international schools, we have students from many cultures. In many educational environments around the world, students are actively discouraged from asking too many questions in lessons, and in boarding schools in the UK we spend time encouraging students to come to tell us if there is a problem pastorally, but also in terms of any concerns with our provision.
I consider pastoral care a three-stage process:
- Care (Do we care about our young people? How do we show it?)
- Understand (How do we try to understand where they are coming from and demonstrate we’re trying to support them?)
- Help (What provisions for support are in place?)
The process of using student voice effectively is really, then, a pastoral endeavor – if we want to show we care and we understand young people, we should then be able to put things in place to help them by improving things.
UK inspection regimes now emphasize pupil voice, as evidenced in National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools in England and Wales. As we go about creating development plans for schools, the way in which we gather students’ voices, and how we feed them back to our young people, is increasingly important. If we are truly school leaders who place pupils at the heart of all we do, and if we see ourselves as servant leaders, we should want to actively listen to our young people’s views, considering them as we continue to develop our provisions in international schools.
This isn’t to say we can grant every request, of course. When I was a Housemaster in an IB School in Scotland, a young man was arguing for a sugary vending machine in our boarding house common room so he could have an ice-cold Coke at two in the morning when he was studying. I remember explaining why this would not be conducive to good sleep or study patterns. In the words of the Rolling Stones, ‘You can’t always get what you want’, but you can feel listened to and considered. School leadership is about compromise, listening, picking your battles, and identifying what I often refer to as ‘The Three Ps’ – the positives, problems, and priorities for development through ‘The Three Cs’ – clarity, consistency, and – the most important ‘C’ – collaboration.
So, how do we properly gather students’ views on our educational offerings, our pastoral provision, and the things that matter to them?
Firstly, consider the methods of gathering information; we want students to feel able to come and talk openly with staff – so having staff who are approachable, open, willing to listen, and who actually have the time to do so is all-important. But for those who don’t feel able to be quite so transparent, anonymous views are also crucial so that anyone can express their thoughts and feelings without fear of comeback. Whistleblowing takes courage, so the culture has to be right in the first place.
Combining methods for student feedback is important; the days of a simple ‘suggestions box’ are long gone; all one finds in them are old chocolate wrappers and occasional bits of paper! While I have replaced suggestion boxes with comments books (making sure there is a pen secured with a chain nearby!), this also isn’t enough. We also use ‘Whisper’ – an anonymous online system mostly for safeguarding where issues can be reported anonymously. This kind of feedback is rare, however, so we must go further.
Our Boarders’ Committee is an essential way of gathering student views; this is designed to represent different groups (age, nationality, gender, floor, etc), and we train students in offering representative feedback. Rather than saying what they and their friends think, it is important for Boarders’ Committee members to visit others, including those they don’t know, gathering their views before meetings.
Surveys are also useful; asking the right questions, whether it is a survey on trips and activities, or whether it is a more general inspection-style survey, getting the tone right, and being able to analyse the responses are key to getting to the core of what the general views of the school community really are. The difficulty with surveys is getting enough responses: if you send them out, consider what communication methods will reach your students most effectively. Where do they check these days? Unlike school staff, it isn’t on email anymore! Sitting students in a room with a phone and having them complete the survey before they leave will get more responses; though the risk of this is having ‘random clickers’ who just want it done as quickly as possible, which can of course skew results. Either way, analysing results and considering how to improve provision as a direct result of students’ voices is really important. Schools exist for the young people we serve, and if we aren’t meeting what they need then we must continually consider how to improve, even if it does create an ever-increasing to-do list that will never be fully ticked!
I think the biggest trick is to be able to share with students the outcome of any feedback they may offer. I do this in a simple ‘You Said / We Did’ format, where we show the methods, we have used to listen to student views, and we briefly outline what action has been taken in response to these views. Was the issue discussed in a pastoral meeting, was something new put in place, and was a suggested event or trip organised? Sending this out termly to the student body and posting it on noticeboards goes some way towards convincing skeptical teenagers that we actually do listen, we actually do action some of their ideas, and we do care and at least try to understand them.
Finally, how do we actively build some of these pieces of feedback into our short-, medium- and long-term School Improvement Plans? In my experience, improvement planning is often completed for the benefit of the school and its community – for the pupils and for the staff who teach and care for them. Feeding student views directly into self-evaluation forms and development plans can change the trajectory of a school or college for the better, as well as help otherwise quiet students to find their voice, make their views known, and ultimately feel more confident in themselves. That can only ever be a good thing!