What happens when disengaged pupils are given the power to make changes to their school environment and to set their own learning goals? Can this help to break the cycle of disengagement? For the last two academic years Demos has been running a pilot in four secondary schools across the country to find out. The students know it as 'Pupil Power'.
Disengagement from learning is a widespread and enduring problem. One study has shown that up to half of all pupils are disengaged by the time they sit their GCSEs. Disengaged learners undoubtedly contribute to a host of troubling national statistics on poor behaviour, truancy, and academic underachievement. Disengagement wastes potential, closes doors to good jobs, and ultimately harms the wider economy.
In Pupil Power we tested the potential for 'coproduction' to tackle disengagement from learning. The concept comes from social innovator and activist Edgar Cahn. In his book No More Throw-Away People, Cahn noted that professionals delivering social programmes - education included - all face the same central problem: 'We can't succeed because we can't get the participation we need from the very people we are trying to help'. How can educators succeed if they can't get students to do their homework, or pay attention in lessons? Cahn saw the answer in coproduction: recasting passive recipients of services as active partners in the design and delivery of those services. Disengaged pupils must be put back in the driving seat.
While coproduction now permeates our health and social care system - and the impact on patient outcomes has been well-evidenced - take up of these ideas has been slow in the education world, and it has not been trialled as an approach with disengaged students. Take-up has been slow in part because of a belief that coproduction proper must entail a radical overhaul of the curriculum and the school day. But it needn't be so. At Demos we instead wanted to test what is possible to achieve with coproduction within some of the constraints of the school system - on the understanding that this is a better means of bringing coproduction into the mainstream.
Over the last two years 64 pupils took part in Pupil Power. Participating schools selected pupils from years 7 and 9, who were targeted because they were showing signs of disengagement. In practice, Pupil Power saw groups of pupils working together to identify an issue or problem in the school and then designing and implementing a solution to it. These group projects included a lunchtime sports club at a school in Grimsby; a petition to change the school uniform in London; a fundraising and gardening project in Birmingham; and a project supporting the Tour de France in Sheffield. Almost all pupils also met with staff individually to discuss their personal goals. Both types of session were intended as regular spaces for pupils to 'be in charge', with staff acting in a facilitation role, drawing out the students' strengths and interests.
Our evaluation found that those students who engaged thrived on the opportunities provided by coproduction. Our research found that students valued the ability to work in a team, put forward their opinions, and the opportunity to draw on their personal talents. While impact on academic performance was necessarily difficult to attribute to participation in the pilot, many students and their teachers spoke to us about the soft skills and confidence that Pupil Power helped to develop amongst students, as well as improving student-teacher relationships. Students who may previously have been defined in school by their disengagement felt a sense of 'value' in school they had not before; unhelpful roles of 'naughty student' and 'strict teacher' were undermined.
It is fair to say, though, that across the board the impact of Pupil Power was mixed. Perhaps inevitably - given the type of students targeted by Pupil Power - other students did not engage (co-produce) nor benefit nearly to the same extent as others. In two cases students were permanently excluded during the pilot. In other cases, the central partnership between pupils and staff was simply not strong enough nor faithful to the principles of coproduction: sessions became less about encouraging students to use their strengths to make positive changes to school and more about calling students up on poor behaviour and academic underperformance.
Furthermore, we found that implementing the pilot was a significant challenge in each of the schools. Schools provided very different contexts for the pilot in terms of ethos and attitudes towards this type of largely extra-curricular intervention. Unsurprisingly, in a system with so many demands already on staff and student time, scheduling was difficult; and in particular there was fierce disagreement about whether pupils should be brought out of lessons or not (something we did not stipulate). The staff involved felt the project added to already extremely busy workloads. And staff had starkly divided opinions on how disengaged participating pupils should be.
But despite these challenges, our study, as a small-scale pathfinder, has shown the potential for coproduction to offer a new way of approaching the problem of educational disengagement. Empowering disengaged students to run their own projects and take charge over their learning gives students new reasons to want to be in school, the opportunity to develop new skills, and to make positive contributions to their school community. The final report is available here.