Student voice and care during COVID-19 by Luke Myer
It’s clear that the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities in education. But, in many ways, it has also brought educational communities closer together – reducing attainment gaps and putting learners and staff in a shared, albeit unprecedented, situation. Care has never been so important.
The latest special issue of NAPCE’s Pastoral Care in Education explored the importance of care in the time of COVID-19; it hopped around the globe, with case studies from New Zealand to Guatemala. It studied every level of education – from a feminist view of pastoral care for young children in Spain to the experiences of disabled students in UK universities. One contribution, from an Indigenous Moana/Pacific perspective, explored the idea of ‘teu le vā’, or nurturing the relational space between people, and what that looks like during the pandemic – the ‘digital va/vā’. At its core, care is about understanding the needs of others and helping meet them. The most important voices in pastoral care, therefore, are those of learners themselves. Pastoral care at its most effective offers learners space to talk; this is as true in early years as it is with postgraduate students.
Student voice has increasingly become established in school life; it’s difficult to visit a primary or secondary school without seeing a display board celebrating a student council or prefect system. In higher education, ‘student engagement’ is a core feature, embedded in the UK Quality Code. It’s a legal requirement for UK universities to have independent, democratic students’ unions, enshrined in the 1994 Education Act. Empowering students to speak and involving them in decision-making brings shared benefits in terms of better academic outcomes and continuous improvement of pedagogy. But it also brings benefits for students themselves – increased resilience, sense of belonging, civic participation, and trust., The Anna Freud Centre reports that schools with a strong commitment to student voice see better behaviour, reductions in exclusions, and improved attainment.
However, in the pandemic, opportunities for student voice have been limited. With online learning, disruptive lockdowns, and frequent pupil self-isolations, teachers have struggled to deliver learning at its most basic.
“We’ve had a huge influx in pupils losing social skills, being anxious around others, and struggling to stay in lesson,” one secondary teacher in Cheshire told me. “We have so many kids now on half timetables to help deal with it.”
A similar view was shared by a head of department at a north London secondary school.
“On top of poor social skills from missing so much school, we had a flood of problems when students returned – things that had gone on at home or on social media. It was exhausting. We weren’t expecting it, nor were we provided with the resources to deal with it effectively.”
A 2021 UNESCO survey of secondary teachers across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa found that during the pandemic, ‘the vast majority of young people, regardless of whether they live in Europe or MENA, lost out on opportunities to have their voice heard’. So, what does student voice look like in the ‘digital va/vā’? Can it be delivered? And how does it impact on pastoral care?
“The reliance on digital technology has gone up,” the head of department tells me. “But this is a good thing because I can easily communicate and share with my groups. There are still boundary issues to resolve, for example if I get an email on a Sunday night from a student. But I think the emergence of tools like Google Classrooms has been really good.”
In the initial lockdown in spring 2020, case studies published by the QAA showed universities like Robert Gordon and Harper Adams had been carrying out online pulse surveys of students’ experiences in online learning environments. Robert Gordon University’s Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and Access department (DELTA) gathered feedback which identified technological and social barriers to learning. These were then included in students’ extenuating circumstances, and a programme of free online industry-focused short courses were developed to address skills needs.
In Liverpool, mass online feedback from secondary school students during the pandemic has begun informing new mental health strategies. Eighty-five local schools took part in the 2021 OxWell Student Survey, an annual online study that asks students aged 9-18 about wellbeing and mental health. Over 11,600 young people across the city took part, sharing thoughts on their wellbeing at school during the pandemic. Liverpool City Council’s Education, Employment & Skills team have begun using the feedback to work with schools on new programmes like Forest Schools and peer-to-peer playground support. The exercise will result in close collaboration between schools, including joint training to tackle children’s low-level mental health needs.
These surveys show how the insights of learners can bring an invaluable perspective, shaping what we do when it comes to pastoral care. But student voice can go deeper than this too. The language in the Quality Code I mentioned earlier reads:
The provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience.
In practice, this means that meaningful student voice systems allow students to shape their education in partnership with staff. They can do so ‘collectively’, in spaces where they can consider, deliberate and develop their own informed views together. They can also do so ‘individually’ – with staff differentiating their teaching and learning based on the student’s own views. Learning is, after all, a two-way street – it’s not simply done ‘to’ students, but with the effort they put in too. So, when students have the opportunity to actively shape their learning, schools create a partnership model which can drive high-quality education.
The advance of technology in education can help. UNESCO’s Europe-MENA survey found that after the pandemic, 87% of teachers were using social media to stay connected with students. They also reported a 19% increase in teachers using digital student voice methods, with 54% doing so in “most” or “all” lessons.
The case studies cited range from student-led films about pupil experiences in Greece and Tunisia, to interactive online seminars with leading community members in Romania. In the Greek example, school pupils used social media groups and online meetings to share their feelings about learning from home. This was coupled with lessons on film-making skills, and the end result was a collaborative video project which received international recognition.
In the UK, most universities involved student representatives directly in their COVID planning; examples range from the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association to Cardiff Metropolitan University. Students’ union elected officers typically attended university committees by Zoom, including strategic and operational decision-making meetings. Many held daily or weekly Student Voice sessions to collate student concerns from social media and email, and identify patterns to feed back to the university. The University of Bath students’ union created a Facebook ‘Corona Community’ with nearly 4000+ students, and coupled it with Microsoft Teams sites for communicating with specific groups, for example international students. The union was able to capture detailed data on students’ engagement with online learning.
The north London school has used Google Classrooms to develop pupil-driven PSHE. “My school have started doing ‘MyZone’,” the department head told me. “It’s an hour a week dedicated to student-led discussion of social issues like mental health and digital communication skills. The students have shaped what we do – we talk about the things that they want to discuss, and giving them that control means they turn up and engage.”
A similar initiative was introduced in the Cheshire school. “Every Wednesday, period one, we have a ‘Spirit’ hour,” explained the teacher. “It’s based on the PSHE curriculum, but through lockdown we adapted it based on what kids were asking to give them an insight into the NHS, infections, and so on.”
A whole-school approach to pastoral care means listening to everyone’s voices, and learners themselves are as important as anyone. When schools involve them in their decision-making, it drives positive change and improved outcomes, as well as individual empowerment and confidence-building. It takes effort – it’s not a one-off exercise, but a continuous cycle of improvement. It takes time to bed in, and to ensure that it’s inclusive of all students rather than the ones most likely to get involved. But it’s worth it.
The pandemic has been a painful, disruptive time for education, but it can also be an opportunity for change. If schools embrace digital tools for student voice, they can show students that their views are valued, that it is safe to share, and that they will be heard. In turn, we’ll all benefit – in school and in wider society.
National Executive Committee
 Baice, T., Fonua, S.M., Levy, B., Allen, J.M. and Wright, T. (2021). How do you (demonstrate) care in an institution that does not define “care”?. Pastoral Care in Education, 39(3), pp.250–268.
 Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) (2018) UK Quality Code for Higher Education
. Gloucester: QAA.
 Lyndon, H. (2020) ‘Listening to Children’ in Williams- Brown, Z. and Mander, S.Eds. ‘Childhood Well-being and Resilience: influences on educational outcomes’
. Abingdon: Routledge.
 Fielding, M. (2004) “New Wave” Student Voice and the Renewal of Civic Society. London Review of Education, 2, 197-217.
 UNESCO (2021) The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student voice: Findings and recommendations
. Paris: UNESCO. p.18