Mark Hoskins, Head of Reed’s School, says letting pupils define and deliver the important messages is the way to ensure productive dialogue

One only has to look at social-media platforms to see the best, and worst, discussions about almost any subject under the sun. A prominent aspect of the communications’ landscape today is the stark polarisation of position that contributors take. Having contributed, from time to time, to the ‘reader discussion’ sections of various articles in a certain online newspaper I subscribe to, I have often been taken aback by replies to posts which I believed quite reasonable. I should have expected any view expressed on Brexit to be met with a binary mindset but, I must admit, I was surprised that discussion of the tactics employed by the manager of Swansea City would elicit quite the same sort of response.

Of course, this is the world that our staff, parents and guardians and, most importantly, pupils find themselves part of: often anonymous, very often polarised and, to a large degree, unregulated in content. However, in a school setting, we have a great opportunity to fashion the way our young people think about these interactions. We can encourage dialogue (listening to others and seeking an element of consensus) rather than discussion, which often involves defending pre-conceived arguments come what may.

The best way of encouraging dialogue is, of course, to harness our collective ‘pupil voice’ by involving the young people in our care in defining and delivering the messages we think are important within our respective school communities. There are many ways of doing this, from school councils to committees focusing on the environment or EDI, to peer mentoring, to pupils even attending staff or governors’ committees. These are underpinned by the operational tools: apps such as ‘tootoot’ (where pupils can anonymously report concerns), bullying surveys, wellbeing questionnaires, and so on. All of these, and many other strands, are woven together and enable schools to harness pupil voice to benefit the whole community.

“Providing a framework for dialogue is essential, as is enabling pupils to shape the programme and action the decisions”

Arguably the key element in the democratisation of pupil voice is to put the onus on the pupils to set the agenda. Providing a framework for dialogue is essential but, as important, is then to enable pupils to shape the programme and be the ones to action the decisions. Reed’s is all boys until 16 but co-educational in the Sixth Form. After COVID, some of our pupils expressed the view that there could be improvements to the Sixth Form induction process to make the transition smoother for both the boys and the girls. We asked the pupils what they felt could be changed. It was agreed to take the year group off timetable for a day and to facilitate a workshop to discuss some of the challenges that might arise and opportunities to avoid them.

The Sixth Form leadership team helped facilitate the day, but the pupils led the structure and content. The outcomes were impressive in producing a genuine dialogue and, ultimately, an agreed manifesto which resulted in a palpable change in the social dynamic from that point on – something of which the year group, now left, was incredibly proud.

The outcome certainly prompted us, as a school, to put as much onus on the pupils as possible and review the content and approach of all group meetings and assemblies. This has meant more pupil input, from notices to presentations, to sports, drama, and music reports, to championing charities, to our weekly ‘words of wisdom’, to a closing prayer. The more the pupils do, the more they learn, and the more their peers seem to listen – dialogue, not discussion, is proving to be the key.

Reed’s School

Further reading: Oakham School on wellbeing in action