SEND pupil voice in the arts

27 November 2019

How do you provide support while maintaining the authenticity of youth voice?

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A New Direction's SEND Network, Tate Exchange 2019. Credit: Dan Weill

In a previous blog for A New Direction, Lawrence Becko defined pupil voice as;

The action of eliciting views from young people about their creative and cultural participation, and involving them in deciding what it will look like.

For teachers working with young people with learning difficulties the eliciting of views is fraught with difficulty. How can we hear from our pupils when they are non-verbal? Or have cognitive processing difficulties? Or memory issues?

These issues and more were discussed at a recent Artsmark Connects event where teachers and arts practitioners were brought together at the Battersea Arts Centre to discuss ‘SEND Pupil Voice in the Arts’.

The evening started with a reminder that the discussion around pupil voice is rooted in Article 12 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child;

Children have the right to express views freely and the views shall be given due weight.

Pupil voice is a human right, with no exemptions.

Advice from young people

With this established the participants heard from two pupils from Garratt Park School, a school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. The pupils discussed their difficulties in sharing ideas and opinions and then talked about what would make it easier. Their ideas included:

  • explaining the words in questions clearly
  • having an example of something similar
  • using visuals with words
  • being patient and slowing down
  • giving different choices of answers.

Panel discussion

How do you provide support while maintaining the authenticity of youth voice?

Responding to their ideas a panel, including teachers Paul Morrow & Leonie Elliott-Graves, discussed the challenges of providing support but still maintaining the authenticity of young people’s voice. The discussion demonstrated that the challenge of providing support whilst maintaining authenticity of pupil voice is not an issue that is easy to solve. However, the asking of the question is essential for any teacher or arts practitioner working with young people with SEND. To keep asking that question is to remain aware of the challenges and not become complacent with easy solutions.

Relationships and trust

The importance of relationships became evident. Knowledge of the young people makes the judgement of the appropriate level of support more accurate. Trust is also a key element in hearing from pupils and something that is only built over time through relationship. Whilst these may seem obvious, sometimes pupil voice can be relegated to a survey passed on to do with a member of staff who the pupil barely knows. The question should always be, who is the best person to be engaging with the pupil?

Being honest

The panel went on to discuss the need of ‘not being tokenistic’ in our approach to pupil voice but to show a willingness to genuinely listen and take on board what young people are saying. This means both planning the questions and planning to give feedback that responds to their ideas and opinions. It also means not asking for feedback on areas where changes can’t happen. We need to be honest and manage expectations during the process. If pupils never see any genuine change after expressing their voice then in the long term they won’t take part.

Therefore, feedback is essential to the process of engaging pupil voice. Young people need to know that they’ve been heard and the response to it. Feedback needs to not just be an after thought but planned into any pupil voice projects from the start.

Role models

The third member of the panel was DJ, an adult performer with learning difficulties. DJ has performed and facilitated workshops with Corali Dance & Access All Areas at schools and prestigious performance venues across the UK and abroad. For DJ, one of his key roles is as a role model. The other panellists discussed with DJ the importance of role models to young people with learning difficulties. If our young people don’t see themselves represented in all the different parts of the arts industry they will feel voiceless. Having a role model shows them a future in the arts is possible but also allows them to see their voice can be heard.

CPD – Inclusive Arts Practice

The second part of the evening was an activity led by Corali Dance using art to connect to movement. Corali are at the forefront of inclusive dance and a very good example of a company who provide adult role models with learning difficulties to facilitate workshops. They led a short activity using shapes in the room to create dance movements and associated sounds which teachers could further develop back in school.

Another company at the forefront of inclusive arts is the Battersea Arts Centre and we finished the evening with a tour of their wonderful interactive installation trail, which is open to visits from schools.

The event provoked much discussion and raised many questions regarding strategies and technology that can be used with SEND pupils to engage pupil voice. As an Advocate for A New Direction I’ll be spending this year continuing to look into SEND pupil voice in the arts.

I look forward to putting into practice many of the ideas that were discussed at the Artsmark Connects event.


Tom Underwood.jpg

Tom Underwood is a Drama Teacher at Garratt Park Drama school. He is part of A New Direction's SEND Network, and is also currently involved in our Advocates CPD programme.

View Tom's Advocate profile