To what extent has pupil voice has been incorporated into curriculum development in the UK?
This assignment aims to explore the extent to which pupil voice has been incorporated into curriculum development in the UK. Before examining the prevalence of pupil voice in contemporary curriculum design, it is first necessary to consider the socio-political backdrop within which curriculum development is framed to determine potential barriers and tensions in implementing pupil-led directives.
In 1985, the ‘Better Schools’ White Paper was published (Department for Education and Science). It marked the first indication of a macro-level emphasis on moving education towards a national entitlement in England. Following on from this, a consultation period began which culminated in the ratification of the Education Reform Act (1988). The first National Curriculum (Education Reform Act, 1988) was borne out of this act, and recognised a perceived need to move away from locally administered teaching and towards a centralised approach; one which would be overseen by, and accountable to, the government.
The National Curriculum (1988) advocated broad, balanced coverage which would equip children for their place within the adult world (Children, Schools and Family Committee, 2009), a decidedly adult led approach but one which purported to be in the interests of children’s extended wellbeing. This would be suggestive of a reflexive curriculum which mirrors the complexities and flexibilities of society and, as such, one that reflects the ever-evolving skills required to thrive in adulthood. Perceived priorities at this time were not necessarily the same priorities that would be relevant now and, despite extensive societal and economic changes since its creation, and despite the widely held belief that children are motivated by a diverse and flexible approach to curriculum coverage (Hopkins, 2008), the current curriculum continues to uphold the same principles as it did in its infancy (Christodolou, 2014).
Pupil voice in education first appeared in discourse in the early 1990s, where ‘a number of educators and social critics noted the exclusion of student voices from conversations about learning, teaching and schooling’ (Cook-Sather, 2006, p.361). The acknowledgement of the absence of pupil voice in reform was still a focal point of discussion in the latter part of the century, where Kozol (1991, p.5) noted that ‘the voices of children have been missing from the whole discussion’ of reform concerning education.
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Pupil voice is key in establishing a narrative which promotes an appropriate curriculum with children at its heart, as opposed to the ‘increasingly politicised’ (Steers, 2014, p.7) content of the current National Curriculum (Department for Education, 2013). The current approach makes assumptions about what pupils want and need, without consideration of how pupil voice can be incorporated. In fact, according to some, the notion of pupil voice becoming embedded within curriculum design has been predominately overlooked by policy-makers (Quinn and Owen, 2014). Though at meso-level, schools are encouraged to consider individual pupil needs (Thomson and Gunter, 2006) in their application of the National Curriculum (Department for Education, 2013), this neglects to examine whether pupil voice could impact upon the content and development of a curriculum. It instead represents confined freedom; the ability to interpret the National Curriculum as per the needs of the child, but only within the confines of the legislation. Equally, contemporary curriculum developments have rejected the notion that education should be an ‘open and recursive system’ (Biesta, 2007, p.8) and initiatives to give pupils agency in what they learn have found little traction. Robinson (2014) suggests that there are tensions in transferring policy to practice and that an outcome focused approach has become the norm. It would be shortsighted to ignore the role that assessment has played in the normalisation of this approach. Boyle and Bragg (2006, p.570) argue that summative testing of curriculum subjects, and the unequal emphasis placed on core and foundation subjects, has resulted in a curriculum which has ‘territories of priority’. In this context, pupil voice is all but impossible where so many stakeholders promote their own interests. Where pupil voice is to empower children this creates a juxtaposition of sorts – offering pupil agency but within the confines of a pre-determined framework for success.
In recent years, discourse has been rife with much debate about pupil voice in education (Lundy, 2007). According to many, children should be afforded the right to ‘participate in educational decision-making through student voice’ (Quinn and Owen, 2014, p.193) – which would suggest their participation in curriculum development and application. The Personalisation Agenda (Department for Education and Schools, 2004), which was introduced as part of the government’s Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners (Department for Education and Schools, 2004), reiterated the importance of pupil voice, arguing that to give children agency could mean ‘the system fits to the individual rather than the individual having to fit the system’ (p.4). In the context of curriculum development, this could mean that children could have a say in the design of a curriculum within which they are afforded opportunities tailored to their personal, social and emotional needs instead of one which is preoccupied with measuring outcomes. As Whitty and Wisby (2007, p.2) quite rightly assert, pupil voice should enhance ‘children’s rights, active citizenship, school improvement and personalisation’ but should not rely too heavily on either of these as a driver. Where outcome is the driver for the incorporation of pupil voice, it loses both credibility and validity, yet at macro-level, there is a persistent focus on the use of pupil voice to improve pre-determined standards (Thomson and Gunter, 2006). In 2004, the Department for Education and Schools (p.3) stated that any personalisation of learning, which arguably incorporation of pupil voice into curriculum development would facilitate, should promote ‘high standards’. This is problematic because it adds a layer of accountability – the implication being that there is only value in pupil voice if it serves to promote the government’s perceived standards, generating ‘tension between a drive for pupils’ self realisation and an officially perceived need for increased regulation’ (Jones and Hall, 2009, p.179). This framing of the notion of pupil voice ‘within the agenda of raising standards (p.179) has resulted in micro-level ambivalence about how children can actively participate in their learning and have true agency through pupil voice. In this context, the value of pupil voice is diminished – that is to say, where it is ‘harnessed firmly to the yoke of school improvement’ (Thomson and Gunter, 2006, p.842), there will always be a driving motive outside of the best interests of children. Pupils are more perceptive than most give them credit for and their opinions should not be underestimated, as they are able to communicate to policy makers ‘a great deal about what is needed for improvement’ (Thomson and Gunter, 2006, p.844). For this reason, Rudduck and Flutter (2004b) argue that pupil voice should form the foundations of curriculum development. Levin (1994, in Cook-Sather, 2006, p.361) speaks specifically of educational reform and pupil voice, stating that ‘the most promising reform strategies involve treating students as capable persons…and involving them in determining goals and learning methods’. This has not been the case in the UK, potentially because ‘student voice has not been seen as a vote winner by governments’ (Rudduck, Chaplain and Wallace, 1996, p.276), leading the discussion full circle and back to the politicised curriculum previously identified by Steers (2014).
It would seem that pupil voice has not been incorporated into curriculum development, neither historically or in contemporary policy initiatives. The reasons for this appear complex and are embedded within a long history of education reflecting political agendas. It is this top down pressure which cascades down to micro-level and creates a culture of performance which hinders adults’ ability to meaningfully incorporate pupil views into the decisions that concern them – forming a ‘real barrier to root and branch ideological change’ (Boyle and Bragg, 2006, p.571). A bold shift in the way children are viewed is required if pupil voice is to have any impact upon curriculum development beyond tokenistic, macro-level gestures driven by socio-political agendas. Cook-Sather (2006, p.366) suggests that ‘student presence and involvement within conversation and efforts that have traditionally been the purview of adults has the potential to effect a cultural shift in educational research and reform’ – that is to say that pupil voice is fundamental in carving a path for a profound change in the way that curriculum reform is viewed. Arguably, curriculum development has instead found its foundations in serving a neo-liberal cause. Policy makers pay lip service to the notion of pupil voice but make true child agency impossible by attaching it to outcomes and standards. Cook-Sather (2006, p.359-360) states that there needs to be an acknowledgement that ‘young people have unique perspectives on learning, teaching, and schooling; that their insights warrant not only the attention but also the responses of adults; and that they should be afforded opportunities to actively shape their education’.
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To conclude, without radical change within the contemporary education climate in the UK, there is a risk that pupil voice will never hold centre stage within curriculum development – it will always be tainted by power influences and macro-level strategies will remain rhetoric at best.
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