Last month, the Department for Education published their Learning outcomes for senior mental health leads in schools and colleges: a document to help ‘enable a senior mental health lead to implement and sustain an effective whole school or college approach to mental health and wellbeing in their setting.’ Enabling student voice is one of the priority outcomes in this document.

Positive education blends academic learning and wellbeing and is the perfect vehicle for designing and embedding a whole school approach to mental health.

What is pupil voice?

Student voice, or pupil voice, is the input of the pupils and students – it is about giving children and young people a say in what happens to them within a school or college. Some schools and colleges are already implementing ways of ensuring the voice of their pupils is heard such as through their student council.

Being heard is important – being listened to is inclusion.

It can seem, from a child or young person’s perspective the adults are always the ones making the decisions. Adolescents especially can be resentful of this and may not buy into new ways of doing things within their school – for example if the teachers suddenly say: this is how we’re going to implement wellbeing.

Surely a much better way of doing things is to get pupils and students on board, for them to participate in developing and delivering the wellbeing strategies which affect them and their peers. After all, what do grown ups really know about what is going on in the lives and minds of children and teenagers? We can all think back to when we were growing up but many of us grew up without mobile phones, without apps, social media and all the different pressures that come from balancing school, family and friendships in a digital world. It’s only the young people who really know the concerns that their generation have.

Why pupil voice is important

As Levin (1) states, effective implementation of change requires participation by and buy-in from all those involved, students no less than teachers, and that ‘students have unique knowledge and perspectives that can make reform efforts more successful and improve their implementation’. Young people are the ones who will know best what they will and will not respond to.

‘Change initiative in schools are often top down, with school leaders introducing a policy or programme that staff are expected to implement, and students expected to consume.’(2)  

But, give pupils and students a voice, let them be heard, listened to and enable them to develop their own strategies in conjunction with the school leaders and they will be more committed to the process and more motivated to try new ways of doing things, instead of perhaps feeling like they’re being used as ‘guinea pigs’ by authoritarian adults.

Building in processes which involve pupils and students in discussion and decision-making improves the wellbeing of young people as they feel more valued and part of their school community: this fosters their sense of belonging and builds positive relationships between students and staff.

Getting students involved in school wellbeing

In a 2017 study(2), in a state funded school in Australia, a group of 10 students from years 9 to 11 were chosen to carry out participatory action research (PAR) in positive education within their school. The students participated in a workshop where they were trained on positive education and conducted research activities to find out more about the barriers to wellbeing within their school. The students interviewed parents, teachers and other students in order to capture views of the whole school community. Barriers to wellbeing included students ’lack of belief in their own abilities, not understanding schoolwork, family conflict, not enough sleep, bullying, not having enough support, work overload, and poor health among others. 

Students designed and developed strategies they could use to support their peers and help protect their mental health. This was beneficial for both the PAR students and their peers.

It’s very important for students to feel like that they have a voice and that they matter in the school. Female participant, aged 17.

At Worth-it we’re specialists in positive education and have worked with thousands of students over the past decade, delivering workshops to improve wellbeing, resilience and protect the mental health of young people. Our Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme has been developed in conjunction with young people and is a powerful way of giving students and pupils a voice in the way their school or college approaches mental health and wellbeing. The programme uses coaching to train students as wellbeing ambassadors,  empowering them to support their peers. For more information and tips on how you can run a Wellbeing Ambassadors Programme in your school or college, take a look at our peer support cheat sheet.

Embedding a voice-led whole school approach to mental health and wellbeing

Embedding a whole school approach to wellbeing can seem a daunting task, that’s why Worth-it have created a whole school system – an effective, step-by-step way of developing whole school mental health that will save you time, energy and stress. Pupil and student voice are integral to our approach to whole school wellbeing.

Our SMHL Wellbeing Pathway Course has been developed to train and support senior mental health leads in all aspects of developing and embedding whole school wellbeing and positive mental health. This includes training and resources to help you enable student and pupil voice as part of your whole school approach. For information on how you can gain funding to join our Wellbeing Club Programme for a year access our DfE funding free information session.

References

1.  Putting Students at the Centre in Education Reform. Levin, B, June 2000.

2. Amber J. Halliday, Margaret L. Kern, David K. Garrett & Deborah A. Turnbull (2019) The student voice in well-being: a case study of participatory action research in positive education, Educational Action Research, 27:2, 173-196,

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