Pupils influence policy and culture as schools respond to growing voice.

Students speaking up and voicing their opinion is having an impact in New Zealand schools – in some instances even changing school policy when it comes to issues like uniforms to unisex toilets to same-sex partners at the school ball.

Student voice as a concept has gained momentum and popularity since the 1990s as a way of allowing pupils to participate in school decision-making. Last month Education Minister Chris Hipkins met with a Youth Advisory Group of a dozen 14-18 year olds to hear their thoughts on improving the education system.

Opinion is divided on whether "democratisation" of education is positive, with some schools and families preferring traditional methods - teachers teach, students listen, senior management determines policy.

But when management denies students a voice, the inevitable media and social backlash can be fierce.

Advertisement

ACG Parnell College Principal Russell Brooke is a year into the role as head of the 1000-strong independent school that borders Auckland's Domain and is focused on giving his students a greater say in the running of the school.

That means establishing a student council, allowing prefects greater ownership of assemblies and consulting students on key decisions on running the college.

"This isn't a new idea. Think back to Ancient Greece where teachers taught their students to be orators, to be communicators, and the teachers would listen to what they had to say," says Brooke.

"The idea of 'sit at a desk, copy this down, shut up, we know best' - that idea was around when I was at school. It stems from the British colonial way of teaching and we just got lost in it for a few decades."

The perfect teaching relationship, he says, is one where you know how your students are thinking, feeling and reacting.

"We can assume we know but actually we don't understand the experience they're having and it's good to hear it."

It's also a way to embrace diversity, according to Tracey Dykstra, Principal at ACG Senior College, an urban school in Auckland city that caters solely to students in Years 11-13.

Respect for diversity – in appearance, gender, sexuality, culture and nationality – is a key tenet.

In order to hear a wider range of student voices, this year it opened student leadership to students at every year level. Head students Alison Thornton and Dom Estall are in Years 13 and 12 respectively.

Advertisement

"At the end of the day, it's not about age," Ms Dykstra says. "If you give teenagers responsibility and a voice, they will step up and behave like young adults."

So when a class of sociology students questioned her about the quirks of the school dress code, specifically why they could dye their hair some colours but not others, she listened.

"They asked me what difference it makes to learning if they have pink hair. I said if they felt it was restrictive then they needed to make a case for change. That's exactly what they did and we changed our policy."

ACG Strathallan in Karaka faced a similar situation when a Year 10 student challenged Principal Danny O'Connor on why female students couldn't wear shorts to school.

"She put forward a proposal outlining that shorts and trousers were more practical for sports and activities, easier when sitting on the floor, warmer in winter, and would allow girls a choice in what they wore," he explained. "It was a no-brainer; changing the uniform was the right decision."

Those students who choose to come to school with pink or green hair, or wearing shorts instead of a skirt, learn no better or worse than before – but they're happier.
But is it just paying lip service?

"Young people are the best lie detectors of anyone on the planet," Brooke says. "They know if they're being ignored or patronised or if you're not being authentic. We want our children to own their own learning. By listening to them, giving them time, we enable that process. Listening is a mark of outstanding respect for your students."

He's quick to point out that doesn't mean it's a democracy. While student opinion is important, it's just one of many voices that feed into the mix. At ACG Parnell College, students don't vote on policy and not all ideas proposed will be adopted.

Like the group of junior students who came to him with a well-thought-out proposal for a Nerf gun club.

"The answer had to be no. We talked it through honestly. They had put a lot of time and thought into their proposal but, at the end of the day we couldn't have a gun club in school. I congratulated them on their proposal, which was excellent, and we came up with an out-of-school alternative that suited everyone."

Listening also comes with risk, he says. What a young person with a developing brain says is not always literal; the skill, experience and subtlety needed to translate that can't be taught in teachers' college. Getting it wrong can mean wrong decisions.

But the benefits far outweigh the risk, Brooke says: "Students are a brilliant sounding board. Their voice is so influential in my understanding of how the school is going and in setting the school culture. When they're included, the school moves forward."