Every learner a changemaker: Student voice into student action

Every learner a changemaker: Student voice into student action
Date25th Feb 2024AuthorGuest AuthorCategoriesStudent Life

It is widely understood that engaging young people in their learning through student voice systems and processes is essential for any education establishment to be successful, both for students’ academic success but also for their overall personal development. And yet, truly engaging every learner in the college community remains a big challenge for many.

Traditional systems such as student councils and student unions remain important but a greater diversity of opportunities is required to truly affect every learner. 

At Unloc, we are now 10 years into our mission to empower every young person to be a changemaker which we use as the basis for helping senior leaders develop modern systems for student engagement and empowerment.

We’re proud to work with a number of key partners across the Sixth Form Colleges sector including Hills Road SFC in Cambridge where we are into our seventh year of partnership. I asked Jo Trump, Principal, to tell us a bit about why she believes in every student being a changemaker.

“Hills has long had a history of academic excellence but, when I became Principal in 2017, I was keen to ensure our students were leaving us not only with enthusiasm for what the world can offer but also for what they can offer the world. With this in mind, we’ve built a number of impactful student action initiatives over the years.

“In particular, our Social Action Week is now an important part of the college calendar with all Year 12s heading out into their local communities to volunteer, to make a difference, to raise funds for charity, all whilst developing important skills for life. To achieve this, we chose to collapse a week of the taught curriculum straight after the Year 12 exams and to provide a framework that requires all of Y12 to take part in Social Action. While teaching staff are marking a mountain of end of year exams for Y12; Y13 are doing exams. This gave us some space and an opportunity: we just needed some more hands on deck to make that week work, plus some creative and digital thinking to make the whole programme come to life. Working with Unloc has enabled this event to take place annually for every non-Covid year since 2018, with the Unloc team bringing enormous energy and enthusiasm as well as using digital technology that would otherwise be beyond what we can easily do in-house.

“We’ve also worked together to put our students at the centre of our Net Zero journey, with Unloc training and supporting student climate ambassadors who have helped shape our Net Zero plans and who continue to inspire and teach their peers about Net Zero, with students leading assemblies and tutorial sessions.

“By having a variety of different initiatives for our students to engage in making change, we’re reaching more and more of them. Being a changemaker doesn’t have to be about making world-changing breakthroughs; it can be as simple as showing leadership in their family, community or group of friends. Whatever it is that our students are thinking and talking about, that’s where we need to be as educators: meeting them there and bringing enthusiasm and creating opportunity for what they want to achieve.”

Our journey with Jo and the team at Hills has been really exciting with a lot of lessons learnt along the way on both sides. We think it’s really important to work hand-in-hand with our college partners to make sure that what we’re doing to support students is right at the time and being open to changing needs.

We’re often asked what our top tips for improving student engagement and student leadership are, and of course whilst there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, there are key principles we believe make all the difference:

  • Co-produce. Get students involved from the very start. They should be proactive in working with you to review and improve systems, processes, environments, policies, and more.

  • Show leadership. Colleges are large organisations and so leadership is key in driving initiatives forward, there needs to be a named senior leader with a budget assigned to champion this work.

  • Dedicate resource. Whilst college budgets continue to be tighter and tighter, student engagement is like any other priority: to really move the needle, it requires funding, both in terms of dedicated staff time and flexible resource that students can have a say in. Even a small investment can yield significant dividends.

  • Ensure diversity. Students only engage in making change when they find true connection to something and traditional student voice structures are not right for everyone, that’s why the opportunities for young people to engage in changemaking need to be wide and varied.

  • Engage externally. True diversity cannot come purely from within the college, especially in smaller institutions. By engaging with external bodies such as local businesses, charities, youth organisations or even enterprises like Unloc, you can build a much richer offer for your students.

  • Communicate widely and effectively. It can be difficult to prioritise messages going out to students when there is so much happening but regular and frequent communication of the student engagement and student action offer is crucial.

Ben Dowling is co-founder and director of people and resources at Unloc. If you’d like to have a chat with someone from their team, feel free to get in touch via email. You can also find out more about them at unloc.org.uk.

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