Student voice in vocational education

Contributing to the organisation of education can improve the curriculum and motivate students. But how might we define the student voice, and how can teachers channel it in productive ways? What are the best ways to enable students to participate in shaping their courses? Do teachers require additional skills to collaborate with students in this process? 

In 2004, SoundOut, an organisation working to improve meaningful student involvement, began defining student voice as ‘the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education’.

Since then, the importance of incorporating student voice into educational processes has expanded and now includes students and pupils at all stages of education. Any person participating in the process of learning has a voice that should be engaged and heard. Students have a right to participate in the development and design of their own learning.

Education is coming to be viewed as a democratic process where the student has input and ownership over their educational journey.  In fact, this can be relevant for nursery age children as well as for young people at colleges or universities.

What’s clear is that it is increasingly important to ensure that learners are engaged in the teaching and learning process but also in their role within their educational institution.  Education prepares young people for life in the wider world.  It is therefore vital, given the growing importance of internationalisation and the impact of recent global events such as 'Brexit' and potential changes in government policy, to consider whether an international aspect to student voice activities is a potential benefit.

Student voice in the UK

In UK vocational institutions, there is a strong focus on student voice activities, but the range and diversity of activities varies.

Methods of engaging and listening to students include:

  • building commitments to the student voice as part of a college’s strategic plans
  • seeing students as empowered partners
  • creating opportunities for students to organise and lead change through student unions
  • engaging students when designing learning and teaching
  • engaging students when designing college services
  • creating student representative committees.

Taking each in turn we can see how these methods could involve students in the organisation of learning and teaching.

Student voice as part of college strategy

Whether or not reference to the importance of students is mentioned directly through college mission statements or visions or if it’s incorporated into strategic plans, student voice is rarely omitted from college policy.

For example, in a section entitled The Student Voice, Edinburgh College’s strategic plan commits to ‘increasing the involvement of students in the development of the college.’

Similarly, Ayrshire College’s strategic plan describes the need to ‘engage the student voice in all aspects of college life to continuously improve students’ learning experience’.  

By including a commitment to engage the student voice in a strategic plan, colleges build involvement of the students into the overarching framework for development, ensuring that it is a priority not only for teachers and students, but for leadership as well.

Students as empowered partners

We often think of student-centred learning as a new concept, but the idea has a long history. Universities were created with students having large control over curriculum. In the twelfth century, students at Bologna University were granted the power of complete self-government, which included control over the curriculum and staff appointments.  

Many colleges are taking positive steps to empower students to shape their learning experience and environment.  Whether through passive or proactive engagement, increasingly there is a commitment to ensure that all students have the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

Students’ unions

Students’ unions are engaged in leading many student voice activities within colleges. Many student union representatives in colleges participate in college committees and work closely with college management to ensure the voices of all students are heard. However, not all colleges have equally active students’ unions and this could have an impact on the effectiveness of a union’s ability to transmit the student voice.

Student engagement in teaching and learning

At Leeds City College, student engagement in teaching and learning takes place through representation on the 300 plus courses that make up college educational provision. Student representatives meet with heads of department. These meetings, which take place on a half termly basis, often have 20–30 student representatives from courses within a particular department.  These meetings are a forum for discussion, for both students and staff to feedback and to outline actions arising.  Action points can be for staff or students. Discussion, feedback and action points feed into a departmental performance review cycle. If students are all talking about the same problems, this forces issues to the top of the agenda for the senior leadership team which addresses them as a priority.

Student engagement in college services

In a similar way to the example of student engagement in teaching and learning outlined above, many college students’ unions also contribute to meetings and committees responsible for college services such as catering, IT facilities, student safeguarding for example. However, as well as being interested in curriculum development, these are areas about which students can be quite vocal. Although teaching and learning are the core priorities in colleges, the support services and facilities that constitute the learning environment are also important to student success and wellbeing. Regular and targeted or themed student satisfaction surveys are another way that colleges gather feedback on changes directly from students.

Student representation on committees

There has been student representation at board level in some colleges for many years now. While this tradition continues, it is a small part of student engagement on a variety of committees responsible for different areas of college life. As well as representation at course level and for cross college services, students make a valuable contribution to many other committees.

Peterborough Regional College, and many others, hold Executive Leadership Team Question Time, which takes place during lunchtime. Class representatives and learners can register for the opportunity to quiz leadership team members, which not only provides a space for them to raise concerns but also allows members of staff to voice issues that students can help find solutions to. In this way, engagement can be a two-way process.

Student wellbeing is another benefit of promoting student voice activities in schools and colleges. Many educational institutions see student voice as a mechanism for personal development – helping to build confidence and prepare young people for roles in society. It can also provide an opportunity to engage and include students from marginalised groups in the organisation of teaching and learning.

Colleges have been supported in their work around political debates, particularly in the run up to the general election and the EU referendum, by organisations such as the Association of Colleges who provide guidelines and toolkits for setting up and running successful debates.  Many included local politicians, college students, local schools and local members of the Youth Parliament.

The European Students’ Union’s UK representative has recorded an increased level of political engagement and awareness since the EU referendum which, they suggested, should be harnessed and supported by their educational establishments.

Schools and colleges can engage the student voice to improve the learning environment and provide students with some of the skills they will need to enter the workplace.