Student voice: How to create a collaborative school and classroom culture

Written by: Dr Geraldine Rowe | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Collaborative decision-making happens when the options, constraints and possibilities in the classroom are discussed and decided in partnership with pupils. Dr Geraldine Rowe explains what this looks like in practice

In my recent article for Headteacher Update, I described what can happen when teachers start to share classroom decision-making with their pupils (Rowe, 2021). I would now like to offer some ideas for teachers to use in the classroom and some tips for how school leaders can create a school-wide culture of collaboration.

Collaborative decision-making (CDM) is what happens when the options, constraints and possibilities for what goes on in the classroom are discussed, deliberated on and decided with the pupils themselves.

Although most headteachers will need to give us some command-and-control from time to time, developing collaborative leadership in yourself and others can result in:

  • Positive impacts on learning and wellbeing (Anderson & Graham, 2016; Davies et al, 2005).
  • Greater impact for professional development (Waldron & McLeskey, 2010).
  • Increased teacher trust and buy-in for change initiatives (Mangin, 2007; Scribner et al, 2007).

What does CDM look like in the classroom?

CDM involves pupils and teachers making those classroom decisions together that teachers may have previously been making on their own. Some examples include:

  • Community-building: e.g. how to celebrate class members’ birthdays.
  • Classroom governance: e.g. how to ensure that the noise level of the classroom works for everybody and can be adjusted by class members.
  • Problem-solving issues affecting the class and school community.
  • Curriculum: e.g. what to learn about, what order to learn in…
  • Pedagogy: e.g. how learning is organised and supported.
  • Management of classroom time and resources.

Claire, a year 6 teacher contacted me recently to tell me how she and colleagues had used CDM to address an issue in their school: “Each year, we choose a group of year 6 pupils to form a Junior Leadership Team (JLT). These pupils then wear special ties to identify them as JLT members.

“Every year, a few parents complain about these ties and how they disagree with this practice. As a result, we look forward to appointing the JLT members, but dread the backlash from parents.

“This year, we decided to bring the whole year 6 group together to discuss the issue. We explained that it had been the practice to give JLT members different ties, but wanted to know if the pupils thought it was a good idea. Pupils offered us many differing views – ‘It’s only a tie’, ‘We need younger pupils to be able to identify JLT members’, ‘We’ve been looking forward to being year 6 and maybe having that tie’.

“When they learnt that the decision was going to be up to them, the pupils voted 40-5 for keeping the tie. This was the first year that we had no parental complaints. The whole exercise took 20 minutes.”

I asked Claire about the outcomes:

  • All pupils were able to express their own view and hear differing points of view.
  • Some quieter pupils spoke out for the first time.
  • Pupils learnt that the teachers trusted them to make the decision, and to agree how this decision would be made.
  • They came up with some creative alternatives to the tie.
  • They understood why the decision was made and felt part of it.
  • The teachers’ confidence in the pupils’ ability to share decision-making increased.
  • No parental complaints.

What can we learn from Claire’s story?

  • CDM leads to valuable learning for the whole class and can sometimes actually save time.
  • Problems previously dealt with by teachers can be shared and solved by pupils.
  • Real-life problem-solving is an effective way of building pupil skill and confidence.
  • When pupils have contributed to a decision, they tend to support and defend it.
  • CDM can be enjoyable for pupils and teachers.

As a result of this anecdote, maybe you could in your school:

  • Start noting down decisions you currently make on behalf of pupils or members of staff.
  • Find an opportunity to collaborate with your class or someone new over one of these decisions and reflect on the time and skill this took from you and the outcomes: the quality of discussion and decisions, and the impact that your CDM had on relationships and learning.
  • Ask: “What could I do, right now, to make this meeting, lesson, task more enjoyable/easier for you?”
  • Ask (pupils or colleagues): What would you like to have more of a say in?” You may be surprised how easy it is to grant these wishes.
  • The next time you have a decision to make, ask yourself: “Who else needs to be involved in this decision?”

CDM is not yet common practice in UK classrooms. However, teachers may get inspiration from reading other stories about how teachers have gone about sharing decision-making power (for example, Rowe, 2020) and from being part of a staff discussion where CDM ideas are explored and shared.

What a collaborative school culture looks like

In schools with a collaborative culture, certain things will be happening:

  • Class discussions: Teachers and pupils are involved in class discussions on curriculum content and lesson design.
  • Policies and plans are jointly devised and demonstrate a commitment to CDM.
  • Skills for discussion and communal decision-making are explicitly taught to pupils and practised in all lessons.
  • Real-life problem-solving: Pupils and teachers collaboratively generate and evaluate solutions for social problems in their own schools and classrooms. Issues are addressed by pupils and staff together, as they arise in the school and classroom.
  • Shared roles: Pupils take on roles previously carried out by adults. There are more shared activities, where pupils and teachers can learn about each other and discover what they have in common. For example, staff and pupils attend some meetings and training as equal participants.

The most important role of a headteacher is to lead the development of a collaborative school culture that will last. Once governors and fellow leaders are on board, headteachers can make the intention to collaborate more explicit and start to bring other staff and pupils into the discussion.

In collaborative ventures that are most successful, the vision from senior leaders has been presented as “promising” but “provisional”, allowing others to join in and help shape the vision (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1991).

This means that senior leaders are modelling collaboration from the outset, by bringing others into the planning at the earliest stage. This is important for establishing a climate of trust and confidence in your fellow collaborators, staff and pupils alike.

Talk about your experiences and your uncertainties around CDM; be transparent and vulnerable. Be explicit regarding your willingness to share leadership responsibilities with others and by empowering others to share in decision-making regarding important issues.

Be on the lookout for places in the school where CDM is already happening. Share stories, both successful and unsuccessful, and encourage a culture of trust and informed experimentation.

Start today

Once you have committed to CDM, you will start noticing it around the school. You may also become intensely aware of how scarce it is. Who decides what goes on noticeboards? Who controls the use of time in lessons? Who decides what should happen when pupils are late for school?

Consider taking a learning walk with a pupil or staff member to identify examples of CDM and potential for even greater collaboration. For example, you might find that certain faculties or year groups have already made CDM part of their culture. Be curious about how this came about and talk to pupils and staff about their experiences of collaboration: what it looks like, how it developed, and what it means to them.

Trust, pride and enjoyment

A collaborative school culture nurtures trusting relationships between staff and pupils, gives pupils a sense of pride and ownership in their school, and brings new levels of excitement and enjoyment to school planning and problem-solving. What a great foundation for teaching and learning.

Further information & resources

  • Anderson & Graham: Improving student wellbeing: Having a say at school, School Effectiveness and School Improvement (27,3), 2016:
  • Davies et al: Inspiring schools impact and outcomes: Taking up the challenge of pupils participation, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation with Carnegie UK Trust, 2005.
  • Fullan & Hargreaves: What’s worth fighting for? Working together for your school, Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvementof the Northeast & Islands, 1991.
  • Mangin: Facilitating elementary principals’ support for instructional teacher leadership, Educational Administration Quarterly (43,3), August 2007:
  • Rowe: Pupil voice: Collaboration with pupils can no longer be optional, Headteacher Update, March 2021:
  • Rowe: It’s Our School, It’s Our Time: A companion guide to whole-school collaborative decision-making, Routledge, 2020:
  • Scribner et al: Teacher teams and distributed leadership: A study of group discourse and collaboration, Educational Administration Quarterly (43, 1), February 2007:
  • Waldron & McLeskey: Establishing a collaborative school culture through comprehensive school reform, Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation (20, 1), March 2010:

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