‘Pupil voice’: an idea lost!

The idea of ‘pupil voice’ emerged at the turn of the century, with roots in democratic schooling, the human rights of children, personalisation and school improvement. It was quickly taken up by school leaders as it became enshrined in law, and became a part of whole school policy for better or worse. At best ‘pupil voice’ was seen as a way of improving social relationships in the school and thus forming a basis for improving the quality of pupils’ learning; at worst a stick to beat the teacher with. In the case of music the idea seems to have been muddled with the pupil’s musical expressive ‘voice’ and the expression of their musical identity, a neo-romantic idea believing in the authenticity of the self and the slippery notion of ‘relevance’. ‘Pupil voice’ is a much more hard-headed idea.’Pupil voice’ works on two interconnected principles. The first is ‘consultation’, the second ‘participation’.

I have found it interesting to think about how ‘pupil voice’ intersects with the idea of ‘informal learning’, an idea derived from the learning practices of some popular musicians and as operated through the approach offered by ‘Musical Futures’.

This particular way of thinking about ‘informal learning’ (there are others) and that of ‘pupil voice’ come together in seeking to change the social relationships of the classroom and in advancing positive conditions for learning. It would seem reasonable to maintain that by creating the positive conditions for learning it is but a small step to actual learning and being educated well. The classroom is a better place to be, a place where pupils can feel that the locus of control is with them as well as well as the teacher.

Let me present an example of ‘informal learning’ intersecting with ‘pupil voice’.

Jenny was half way through her PGCE course and in her second school placement. The department had adopted Musical Futures for terms two and three of Year 9 and this meant ‘In at the deep end’. Jenny now took responsibility for two year 9 classes and was fascinated to observe how this would work. What Jenny observed was that despite offering support where needed this was not working for everybody. While the introduction of informal learning would seem to be answering to ‘pupil voice’ and ‘personalized learning’, the slogans of the time, and while of course there was much scope for student choice and autonomy, students had not been consulted about how it would work, or indeed whether it was a way they would choose to learn music for the remainder of year 9. Thus Jenny set about consulting her classes. This was managed through a diamond six exercise giving students opportunity to indicate what was most important to them about the way they learnt bearing in mind the tenets of ‘In at the deep end’. This is how priorities were expressed:

Having choice in what you do
Working with friends
Using familiar music
Having no structured framework
Teacher input
Learning new instruments

The results were shared with the class and this led to an open forum discussion out of which the class and Jenny came to agreement about the role she should take as the class learnt in what followed. Interestingly, the class was happy for Jenny to select the music to be studied. What was most significant was that the ‘rules of the game’, as the sociologists like to put it, were understood by everybody. Relationships had been enhanced and what followed saw great commitment from the class. Jenny had used her developing professional judgement and introduced the class to a new genre of music by providing a range of Film Music to work from. Each friendship group made their selection and proceeded to recreate their selected piece. Jenny noted that great attention was paid to accurate replication of melodic lines while the music’s texture was more freely created. Once performances had been created a task was set that would extend the work through a composing process. Groups were asked to select three musical features in their work as the basis for making a new piece. This worked well.

The principle of consultation and participation played its part in the success of ‘In at the Deep End’ and what was subsequently generated from it.

‘Pupil voice’ usefully starts by gaining insights into how pupils are experiencing their learning and how these insights can bear upon the conditions and process of subsequent learning.

But consultation can be time consuming whether in open forum, through postcard teacher-pupil communication (off-line/on-line) or however.

If undertaken it does need to be carried out with clear protocols and it needs to be inclusive with all voices heard.

In another secondary school music teacher Kate is setting out to improve her teaching of composition to year 10. Teaching composition at GCSE can be problematic. In this case the first step is for the students to keep a diary of how they are experiencing being taught to compose. Kate is keeping her own diary recording how she is making sense of her teaching and her pupils’ responses to it. Kate is about to learn a great deal I suspect and the pupils’ perception of composing may be about to change as well.

‘Pupil voice’ is a valuable concept and worth defining with some precision. Or perhaps you think not. It seems that most good ideas become bastardised in the smash, grab, mash up and mush of school innovation, change and the relentless call for improvement. In all this we should never lose sight of the question: why are we muscially educating? and once clear about this ‘pupil voice’ may have a part to play.

Here is a diamond six exercise. (1; 2; 2; 1) Place your number one at the top of the diamond. It may be the ??????? one. Solutions please.

The purpose of a music education is to:

develop self-understanding
sustain and enliven musical culture
find out what kind of person it is good to be
explore how ways of making music can relate to ways of living life
develop musical skills
?????????????

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