Student Voice: An Educational Schlieffen Plan?

Posted on March 23, 2014

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Although I’m an English teacher by training and by trade, throughout further and higher education I was a student of both literature and history. The choice of the latter was unexpected for me: I’d only achieved a grade D in GCSE History, having failed to be ignited by the dampened matches of “the History of Medicine” and “the Tudors and Stuarts” that was the standard fayre in those early days of the new qualification. But thanks to a limited set of option blocks and an apparently odd combination of first choices (apparently Literature and Physics aren’t a coherent pre-U programme!!!) I was left with Hobson’s Choice and found myself enrolled on an A-Level History course with a key focus on the period 1871-1945.

Things began well (if not spectacularly) enough as the Franco-Prussian and Boer Wars managed to sufficiently dry out those dampened matches enough to create a spark of interest in me. But the kindling of my imagination merely smouldered at these, perhaps reflecting my own sogginess after the years of trepanning, black bile and smallpox.

And then came the “Lucifer to light my fag”, the lighting of the blue touchpaper and the ignition, combustion and downright firework display of my historical imagination as we embarked upon the study of The Great War. Think of those amazing pyrotechnical displays that accompany a performance of the 1812 Overture and you’re on the right track.

I loved every element of the study of history from that point: the Russian Revolution, the rise of fascism across Europe, the interwar depression that fuelled it, the total war of the 1940s and even, God bless me, the post-war realignment of Europe and the world that gave rise to the UN, the EEC, NATO and the rest of the acronym soup that followed. But it was the grand tactical manouevring of the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente that lit the fuse.

The Schlieffen Plan exemplifies all that I love about the subject. Taking his cue from the tactics of Hannibal in encircling the far stronger Roman army at the Battle of Cannae in 216BC, the German Count Alfred Von Schlieffen devised the first of many ‘lightning war’ plans of that era to ensure victory over French forces before the ‘Russian Steamroller’ could mobilise in support and engage the Germans in a war on two fronts. The plan had two elements: the first a concerted attack upon France’s most heavily fortified areas along the German border but, crucially, a second wave of fast-paced mobilisation of forces to the north intended to sweep through the neutral Benelux countries. These forces would then swing across the north-eastern areas of France as far north as the channel, past Paris (perhaps through Paris), creating a pincer movement behind the massed French army on the German border. Thus, ran the theory, the war on the Western Front would be over in weeks and German forces would be able to move east to meet the Russians at full strength and defeat them.

So what am I doing giving you a History lesson in a blogpost about student voice? Good question. And here’s my answer in brief, in the form of an analogy (what else would you expect from me?!). It was inspired – if one can call negative provocation as inspiration – by a comment I heard recently, for the umpteenth time, by a school leader celebrating their student voice mechanisms, that ran something like this:

“Students are now challenging teachers by asking them ‘why can’t we learn this way, as we do in other lessons?'”

And it struck me, as it increasingly does, that these school leaders – who are invariably celebrating a bottom-up approach to developing teaching and learning – are initiating their own Schlieffen Plan pincer movement on their teachers.

In the analogy the school leaders of which I speak are like the generals of Imperial Germany, hugely wary of the slow-moving juggernaut that is the ‘DfE/Ofsted Steamroller’. As they perceive it approaching from the east, and as they focus on ensuring that teaching and learning is deemed Outstanding by the establishment, they turn their attentions to their teaching staff (who are analogous to the French forces). As well as striving to encounter them full on with their battalions of top-down policies, INSET days and performance management (to name but a few aspects of their armoury), they seek to enlist an infantry of students armed to the teeth with their voices to sweep around the flanks of their teaching staff, challenging them from the rear.

This twin-tracked approach seeks to leave teachers in the grip of a pincer movement that will ensure SLT-sanctioned pedagogy reigns supreme, that all resistance is crushed and that the surrender of alternative teaching methodologies is total.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think all SLTs conduct student voice mechanisms this way and I’m certainly not against the concept of student leadership (as opposed to student voice, or it’s more destructive cousin student noise). In fact I have blogged at length about ‘Doing Student Leadership as a Member of SLT’. It’s just that I think that too often the approach taken is a subversive one, or more to the point a subverting one. It is designed to put pressure on teachers from within their classrooms as well as from within the staffroom. It is an attempt to gain compliance and control, not a genuine attempt to help enhance teacher effectiveness (and Daniel Muijs, at TLAB2014, asserted the reliability of student voice as a way of measuring teacher effectiveness).

What if my slightly-less-than-rose-tinted view of student voice as an educational Schlieffen Plan is true? What can these armchair military tacticians of our SLTs learn from the lessons of history?

Well, as we all know, the Schlieffen Plan did not deliver the anticipated ‘killer blow’ to the French forces in 1914. Instead of equipping their northern forces (our student voices) with enough firepower to deal decisively with Belgian and then French resistance, the German army – under Field Marshal Helmuth Von Moltke – weakened them in order to give more strength to their southern forces (our top-down SLT pedagogic model). The decision was catastrophic for the German forces and their failure to breakthrough in the north led to the four-year-long attritional bloodbath that was the trench warfare of the Western Front.

I would argue that this is a not dissimilar outcome from most top-down, compliance-chasing student voice initiatives in most of these schools. Rather than genuinely utilising the perspectives of students to find out what works in classrooms from an inquiring standpoint (the student leadership of my previous post) the role of student voice in these schools has been so diluted as to be unrecognisable from the potent force for positive change that it could be. Instead teachers have been able to ‘head it off at the pass’ and we are all now entrenched in a stalemate stance where student voice tells school leaders little of value and contributes even less of value to the effectiveness of teachers. And like the soldiers of The Great War, no amount of under-mining, big pushes or new fronts have stopped us from slowly bleeding into the soil.

Maybe instead of continuing to push backwards and forwards over the barren, inhospitable, shell-cratered and worthless ‘no mans land’ of deservedly failed top-down student voice initiatives, we need to learn another lesson from history. Perhaps we ought to unhunker from our relative bunkers, meet in the middle, collect up the dead and mortally wounded ideas of the past to bury them and kick around the football of some real ideas of student leadership: real ideas that utilise the particular knowledge, skills and perspective of students (not ones which wrongly assume that students understand the balance of art, craft and science that is good teaching) in conjunction with teachers to help contribute to their effectiveness and, through them, the effectiveness of the school.

If we did manage to achieve that goal, we might find out that we are actually all fighting on the same side and with the same aims in mind. Or we might even find that we are not fighting at all. As someone who is keen to see us learn the lessons of the past, I’d light up like a Catherine Wheel if we could consign to the dustbin of history the botched attempts at a student voice whose sole purpose is to marginalise the pedagogic preferences of any teacher for whom they work.

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