In the summer of 2014 there was a national conference on ‘Student Voice’ held in London to which schools (teachers and students) were invited. The idea was to explore ways for young people to have more of a voice in decisions in school. There has been a longstanding interest in this with a growing literature praising the value of giving students more of a voice.

I chair the Governing Body of Self Managed Learning (SML) College in Brighton. Given our role in providing a place where students manage their own learning it seemed useful for us to take part in the conference. Indeed we agreed to run a workshop, where we could show what we did and have an open discussion about our approach.

Now our approach is to go way beyond a voice for students. The latter are able to decide for themselves what and how to learn within a democratic learning community. So in order to introduce our approach I arranged for a group to attend and run this workshop. The group included four existing students aged 11 to 15 and one ex-student (aged 16) who had recently left to go to sixth form college.

At the start of the workshop I showed a 9 minute film about aspects of our work. Then I handed over to the ex-student (Sam) to chair a replica of our daily community meetings.

After the film there were lots of critical comments from the school students who came to the workshop. The first one was that if students could decide what to do they would just loaf around all day and do no work. This comment came after seeing a film clearly showing students in SML College learning a great deal. And on the film I was quoted as saying that in 14 years we have had no NEETs - that is all 16 year olds leaving had gone on to sixth form or further education college – except last year when two students set up their own business instead. No local school comes anywhere near our record.

After comments about our students not learning the group of students from SML College talked about what they did learn but this did not convince the critics. The latter preferred to work to their prejudiced assumptions rather than the evidence.

The next criticism from school students was that our students couldn’t get good grades at GCSE. This was after they had seen the film in which Sam had featured and which his mother had said that he had gained two A* grades in the January and was on track for six more in the summer. Sam was sitting there and confirmed that he indeed had gained 8 A* grades in total. Again the critics would not back down in the face of factual evidence.

Another attack from the school students was that not doing well in exams would lead to career failure. Getting a good job, they opined, depended on good exam passes. This was after viewing the film in which an ex student, Tim, had talked about his current work as a self-employed illustrator where his clients included New Scientist, Nike, Vodaphone and many other household names.

Tim came to us aged 14 after four years out of school and doubts about his future. We noticed that he was drawing a lot and encouraged him to develop a portfolio of work. Having done this he was interviewed by a local further education college and offered a place. They indicated that they ideally wanted some GCSE passes so in a year he worked at four and gained one C, two Ds and an E. However the college recognised that he had learned how to manage his own learning so was likely to flourish in their environment. This proved true as he gained the prize for the best student.

Tim went on to university taking a degree in illustrating. After leaving in 2010 he was awarded ‘Best New Blood’ in the National Design Awards and his work for Guys Hospital won the award for ‘Best Use of Visual Art in Healthcare’. But still the school students insisted that good GCSE passes were always essential for a good career.

Their insistence in the rightness of their views was mostly articulated in rather rude and insulting ways – in contrast to the polite and patient way our students responded.

What was fascinating was that out of about 30 people at the workshop there were only two teachers and one of these clearly took an interest in our work to the extent of wanting to spend time with me after the event to find out more about how to implement our approach in school. None of the school students attending seemed to have any interest in finding out more about what we did.

What was frightening was the extent to which school students have absorbed the untruths peddled by Government and by the education establishment. As a scientist by background I was stunned by the easy way in which these young people could ignore evidence and base their opinions on the misinformation that they had absorbed.

In the workshop one girl, obviously from a private school, commented, in an arrogant manner, that they had pretty much 100% A*-C passes at GCSE and things were therefore all right. She, and other critics, were articulate, confident and self-assured. They have been well-schooled but ill-educated. You could see that they could end up in powerful positions in society – politicians, media people etc – that is those sectors of society dominated by the products of elite educational institutions.

Very worrying.


Ian Cunningham, Aug. 2014


There is another film at . Password - SMLC

There is also an interesting TEDx talk by 16 year old Sam Watling (ex student with Asperger's) here


Find this article useful? Please consider making a donation