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In the last week of last term, I held my regular series of Q&A assemblies: essentially, a chance for the pupils to ask me anything they like about the school and its running.  I got round all the year groups, and was thoroughly grilled on matters ranging from why Jewish Circle isn’t available in Years 7 and 8 (broadly, because we very rarely get to meet as whole year groups, and splitting our newest joiners into smaller groups as soon as they arrive is less conducive to building collective spirit) to how we choose which A Levels to offer (and, charmingly, how I met my wife!).

I enjoy these assemblies because they give me some idea of what pupils think I can usefully speak to them about.  I don’t vet, or even see, the questions in advance and while we have, this time, tried to filter them through each year’s Pupil Action Committee, or similar, I like to think they are a reflection of what at least some people are thinking about.  Similarly, we have a regular programme of pupil visitors to our Senior Team meetings: recently we have taken to splitting into smaller groups of 3-4 ST members and a similar number of pupils from a particular year.  We discuss some scenarios and what they might tell us about how pupils perceive certain issues and how they, and we, might respond.

These sessions are invaluable.  Partly because they give our pupils agency, in that they get to come and talk to the school’s key decision makers, and partly because they give us an idea of “on the ground” sentiments and attitudes.  Very often these conflict: we will discover that one group in, say, Y10, has firmly told us one thing, while another, from the same year group, has passionately espoused precisely the opposite, and that both contradict with what Y12 told us a few weeks back.  This only goes to show the complexity of life, and how important it is that one of the voices we hear around Highgate is that of a wide range of pupils.  More than that, the actual process of engaging in this way is beneficial to our pupils’ development: they learn how to couch requests and questions in the most effective way, to engage decision makers’ interest, to recognise when to compromise, and gain a sense of confidence in their own ability to articulate that which matters most to them.  As Ash, one our sixth formers, puts it: “The thing I’ve learned is that the more you speak up, the more you realise how many people will actually be supporting you. It’s the most fulfilling feeling.”

We’ve done a lot of work on this recently: starting from the ground up in terms of process and practicalities.  Pupil Action Committees have had training this year on exactly how to run a productive meeting – making sure it doesn’t just descend into moaning (!) – learning about leading inclusive discussions, drawing out ideas from all parties and ensuring that everyone has a clear action to take away at the end. For the first time, Middle School pupil leaders are fully chairing their own meetings – learning much about the sometimes intractable tyranny of The Agenda in the process! They’ve led on recommendations for the diversification of school-wide pupil reading lists; helped to shape the academic rewards system (moving away from alphas in the middle school towards departmental commendations); and consulted on the newly-implemented Friday Lunchtime Activity slot – in each case working directly with the relevant colleagues across the Senior School.

This emphasis on Pupil Voice is by no means a purely top down, “this is good for you”-type initiative.  You may have seen the Connected Community item on our website, and the accompanying social media clips, about our Pupil Leadership Team’s campaign to extol the benefits of taking an active role in the community.  As Edoardo, one of our Deputy Heads of School, puts it, “It’s important to put yourself out there to make a change, because you definitely can. Students have a very different outlook on the school. They’ll be able to analyse issues and bring forth things that they want to change or things that they want to improve.”  Hannah, another Deputy, backs him up: “Some people are sceptical of the impact that you can personally make on the school environment, but there definitely is the potential for you to leave a footprint on the school community.”

These aren’t just words.  In one of the accompanying videos, Kitty describes how she helped set up our Neurodiversity Society, because she saw a need for a supportive and dedicated community in that area.  Members of the PLT, with the 12 House Captains, have also spearheaded some peer-to-peer education projects to augment in areas they themselves identified as likely to benefit from this approach: men’s mental health and how to stay safe at parties, to name two. And, as many of you will be aware, over the last couple of years many of our pupils have taken strong stands on a range of important social issues, to drive change.

That is not to say that we have cracked it.  This is very much a shared project: not just a chance for our young people to impact their community, but also for us to find out how best to respond to issues raised.  We are still learning how to make clear that asking for feedback is not the same as promising to do everything that’s asked of us – working out how to explain that sometimes, not all suggestions are the right ones.  This is something that will improve as the feedback loops get stronger and more established, moving beyond “You Said, We Did” posters to discussions about “You Said, We Did, But Also We Didn’t Because…”

Towards the end of the Connected Community news item, Edoardo makes a call to his fellow pupils, and those to come.  If you want to do, or change, or advise on, something, he says, “Just put yourself forward because you’re going to a school that backs you.”  That is lovely to hear and suggests that harnessing pupil voice is doing much more than making it easier to make good decisions, ones which are well understood and supported by pupils; in addition, it is giving young people validation and credibility as significant members of a community created to serve them – with (albeit age-appropriate) accountability and responsibility, and justifiable sense of pride as a result.   This doesn’t mean, of course, that we can say yes to everything, but it definitely does mean that we are willing to hear and to think.  So please, encourage your children to use their voices.  We’re listening.

About the author
Adam Pettitt, Head
Adam has been Head of Highgate since 2006. He was previously Head of Modern Languages at Abingdon School and then Deputy Head at Norwich School. He read French and German at university and continues to teach both subjects to Y9 pupils at Highgate. Beyond work, Adam enjoys running marathons and is a recent convert to inter-railing.