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It is often said, ‘children are the future.’ In fact, Whitney Houston popularised a hit song beginning with this exact belief. It is undoubtedly true that, in the future, it is our current students who will be leading us and legislating for us, curing us and entertaining us, selling to us and building for us. But these albeit younger human beings are here now. They matter now. And, for those of us in education, they are (or at least should be) the epicentre of all we are trying to achieve. 

So why do we relegate children and young people to being ‘future citizens’ with no agency in their own school experience? To what extent does this provide our students with renewed hope, which is part of the theme for Converge 2022Leading Courageously, Renewing Hope?

Hope requires a level of mutual trust and relationship to become a reality. It does not exist in a vacuum, as a mere concept. Paul writes to the Romans: “Hope does not disappoint us, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:5). The work of the Holy Spirit ceaselessly drawing us into relationship with God is what enables hope to retain its potency. Without relationship, hope becomes a disappointment.

For our young people, it can be hard to feel hopeful about the future. What kind of planet can they look forward to? How can they work out the nuances of what they believe in an utterly polarised world? Will the systemic injustice that limits the chances of so many, purely on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or background ever come to an end? And how can we have faith in humanity with a tiny few controlling the vast majority of the world’s resources while trillions live in poverty?

Yet we know that relating to our young people, taking seriously the issues which truly matter to them, engaging with their questions of belonging, purpose, and identity really can make a difference. We know that enabling our young people to take the lead empowers and invigorates them. That proactive social action, which is good news for our communities, and genuine intergenerational interaction can make a difference. Children and young people can grow in faith and as a result, find renewed hope (see Growing Young by Powell, Mulder, and Griffin).

In order for this to happen, they must know that we are serious about connecting with them, investing in them and ultimately, making their concerns our priorities. Not tokenistic lip-service, where ‘consulting young people’ becomes another tick box on our strategic overviews in order to absolve ourselves or make us look good. We need to really, authentically listen. And we need to listen to views from across our entire student population, not just those articulated by the confident ones who get themselves elected.

This means we have to strap in for a rocky ride. We may not like everything they have to say. It may even contradict some of our most fiercely held principles.  Do we have the courage to hear their voices? All of them? Are we able to sit with the discomfort this will inevitably bring?

If we want to renew hope in those we are seeking to educate, we don’t have a choice. The Church of England’s Vision for Education puts it like this: “The worth of each student impels us to work to fulfil their God-given potential… Each is to be understood as respectfully and deeply as possible.” The only way to deeply and respectfully understand our students, and demonstrate our firm belief in their inherent worth, is to prioritise their voices and act upon their concerns. 

Our inclusion of students in Converge 2022—as speakers, participants, and leaders—therefore, emanates from this imperative. At the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership, we already involve young people in our national conferences, including keynote addresses from both primary and secondary age students, running a student leadership stream, and empowering them to question our most high-profile guests (even the Archbishop of Canterbury!). We have also been seeking out their views on the future of the Church of England, as part of the Archbishop of York’s Vision and Strategy work, through younger leaders’ groups. But it can also start very simply; in the last school I led, I invited one student from every year group each week to join me for hot chocolate in the library, where we chatted about what was important to them. 

Putting student voice at the heart of our decision-making enables our young people to actively shape their own school experience, as well as the legacy of education they will leave to those who follow them. As leaders in education, we have the power, influence, and leverage to create the sorts of learning environments in which our students can thrive. It is our duty to do so. How will we enact our power?

1. Ensure a Genuine Diversity of Voices

We can only have renewed hope if we’re including voices which are different to our own. Otherwise, we perpetuate the status quo, believing that because it works for us it must be the right way. In order to imagine the new, we have to be willing to let go of our own internal narrative and invite in a real diversity of voices. To help, we can ask ourselves a number of questions, like:

  • How many of our student leaders come from different ethnic backgrounds to us?
  • What is the gender balance?
  • What sorts of backgrounds do these students come from?
  • Is it always the loudest and most charismatic voices who are heard and heeded? What mechanisms are in place to hear the quieter students?
  • We know that diverse teams are more effective, more creative, more entrepreneurial—do we live this out in our student councils?

We need to listen to the lived experience of our whole range of students, and we must act in response to their responses. 

2. Explain What You Will Actually Do as a Result of Having Listened 

The book of James warns us that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26). Similarly, listening to student voice without acting upon it is worthless and can, in fact, be highly damaging. For if we seek out their views, encouraging vulnerability and openness, and do nothing with those views, we risk destroying any trust they might have placed in us. This is not to say we do whatever it is they ask. Rather, we dignify our students by telling them the truth. We explain what is possible and what may not be feasible. We explain the choices we have made and why we made them. We communicate with transparency and authenticity, thereby repaying the trust they have invested in us by sharing their concerns.

3. Empower Students to Take the Lead in Change-making

Subsequently, we involve them in any changes we seek to make as a result of their feedback. Children demonstrate leadership qualities right from the early years; we see it in their play, their language, their group dynamics. If we truly believe in their ideas, they need to be given the chance to implement and lead them. Students are developing leadership skills regardless; will we leave to chance what kind of leaders they become, or facilitate the shaping and character of their leadership? How much more invested in a change are we as adults if we have a part to play within the process? It’s no different for our young people. 

4. Encourage an Ongoing Dialogue and Feedback Loop

Having set out to make a change in response to student feedback, we have to be willing to accept that our implementation may not take the direction they intended. Or, the outcomes and consequences of the change may actually be causing more (unseen) harm than good. It’s not enough just to listen as a one-off exercise; hearing the voice of students needs to be built into the very fabric of our school cultures.

5. Enable Students to Genuinely Hold You Accountable

Without real accountability, any language around acting upon the views of students can become empty rhetoric. Our young people need to know we have taken their concerns seriously, so seriously that we are willing to make ourselves accountable for the ensuing actions. Accountable to our governance structures, yes. But ultimately, accountable to the very young people we are in education to serve. This does require courageous leadership—to be willing to bear the consequences if action isn’t effective or rapid enough—but we can be spurred on by the words of Jesus that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). 

When students’ voices are at the very centre of what we do as Christian educators, we fulfil the call of Christ on our lives—a courageous call to set aside self and lift up those with the least agency. This is sacred work, and by including students in Converge 2022 we might just get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. 

Emily Norman is the Head of Networks at the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership, where she enables school leaders to come together and discuss a range of educational leadership issues through a theological lens. This includes a UK/US network in conjunction with Baylor University, specifically focused on Diversity and Inclusion. She has an MA from St Mellitus College in Christian Leadership and was previously headteacher of two urban primary schools in London.

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