The Head of St Dunstan’s College Nicholas Hewlett discusses its ‘Diapason’, designed to include the student voice in every aspect of school life

If schools do not allow their pupils to become active agents in strategic thinking, we risk an ever-polarised society where the young feel disenfranchised from authority, generationally dislocated and where issues that matter to them become locked in an echo chamber of bitterness and injustice.  

Like many Heads in our Sector forced to navigate the necessary self-questioning presented through the challenges posed first by the Black Lives Matter movement and then latterly by Everyone’s Invited – having soul-searched and questioned the very core of my educational belief and educational purpose – I felt strongly that we were not advocating enough of a role for children in the decision-making of the school.

“Diapason means a burst of harmony, or the entire scope and range of a thing – an appropriate term for what we were trying to achieve”

That is not to say that we do not have a well-meaning pupil parliament, annual pupil surveys, working groups and an active prefect body – we do all of that – but I felt on reflection that these things were at risk of providing little more than lip service. How we can improve catering and the co-curricular programme is all very well and good, but do children have a say in the very culture they help to cement and for which they are both custodians and beneficiaries?  

My mind was drawn to a presentation I was asked to give to the Barclays Spectrum group. This is a significant network of employees representing the LGBTQ+ community from across the Barclays group and their task is to formulate and take ownership of a strategy for improving equality, inclusion and diversity within the group. I was taken by this idea, as it had the benefit of coming directly from within. It had cultural clout because the employees themselves were shaping their lived environment. I started to think about whether something similar could be achieved in a school setting and the idea of the St Dunstan’s Diapason was born.  

St Dunstan's College on ensuring the student voice
Nick Hewlett, Head of St Dunstan’s, says the school’s approach is to bring together views and ideas into one forum where everybody can be heard

The first thing most people ask me is what does Diapason mean, which is a good question. It means a burst of harmony, or the entire scope and range of a thing. It seemed to me a very appropriate term for what we were trying to achieve. The Diapason is structured around five ‘pillars’ – Race, Sex and Gender, Religion and Belief, Sexual Orientation and Disability. Each has a nominated pupil and staff lead who work with the broader pupil and staff community to formulate a strategy for action. I chair and resource the group. We meet once a half-term and the purpose is clear – we want to make sure that our community is founded on deep principles of equality and that we are actively showcasing the very great benefits that diversity brings.

The Diapason liaise with governors, speak with parents, and support the pastoral team in finding solutions to problems when they arise. Although still in its infancy, we have had great success. Fundamental change to our curriculum, driven by the pupils themselves, sits alongside more concrete changes – for example, this summer we are building our first multi-faith prayer room. Their list of actions is significant, and this is a lively and sometimes challenging group to manage. We do not always agree, but at least we are talking. Staff and pupils from across the school organisation, bring together different views and ideas into one forum where everyone is heard. This allows meaningful change to be driven by those in direct receipt of the culture that is created here at St Dunstan’s. 

St Dunstan’s College

Further reading: Oakham School on co-ed confidence