Why collaboration with pupils can no longer be optional

Schools are already moving in a direction that prepares the ground for a change of culture. Never before has there been such a focus on the learning experiences of pupils; the social and well-being needs of teachers and pupils; of collaboration and sharing of ideas between and within schools for how to support learning; and an unprecedented interest in how schoolwork connects to other demands and pressures in the lives of pupils and teachers.

In this article, I’m going to focus on an approach that was already around before the pandemic upheaval of schools, which has the potential to make a vital and life-affirming contribution to the post-pandemic recovery. Better yet, there is a way to recycle all the energy that teachers have put into adapting education over the past year, and use it up to fuel the generation of a renewed school culture.

That freeing up of energy requires the use of collaborative decision-making (CDM); teachers involving pupils in decisions about what goes on in their classrooms. CDM can be applied to curriculum, teaching and learning; the classroom environment, the maintenance of good discipline and effective use of time and resources.

Why now?

School leaders have a highly complex task ahead of them which they do not have to do alone. The rebuilding of our school communities and the renewal and development of a new school culture simply cannot be done without input from pupils. There is no better time than now, as schools plan for reopening, to show pupils that their opinions really do count.

As schools plan to reopen for all students, they can learn from the experiences of schools in Japan and New Zealand in 2010 and 2012, where earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear disasters not only closed schools but shook the whole community. Young people played a really important part in rebuilding the community and bringing everybody together as schools were returned to their educational use.

Why bring greater pupil-participation into your new school culture?

  1. Pupils are the school’s greatest resource. They are experts in their own experiences. If they don’t feel that the school culture involves them, they will create their own.
  2. Pupils put more effort into activities they have helped to design. The same is true for adults in the school.
  3. By showing a more active interest in what pupils did when they were at home, and how it shaped their feelings about school, teachers both learn about their pupils and help them to feel that their views matter. When children perceive that teachers care about their lives, they start to believe in themselves, and it impacts on their relationships and learning.
  4. When pupils are involved in co-design of the curriculum, they automatically design topics and tasks that link prior experience, knowledge and skills. This seats learning right in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where the level of challenge is optimal and which leads to greatest engagement and learning.
  5. We have become more aware in recent years that the brain, specifically the frontal cortex which is involved in executive functioning, works optimally when individuals are engaged in tasks they have had some part in designing, particularly when that task is related to improving people’s lives.
  6. CDM develops a cross-generational fellowship between teachers and pupils which allows them to be their authentic selves in the classroom. The ability to be oneself in the workplace has been identified as making an important contribution to wellbeing.
  7. Parents notice their children talking about school in a new way. They see them putting time in at weekends and evenings pursuing learning based on the curriculum they helped design.
  8. Study after study has shown that CDM contributes to improved learning (see, for example, Boomer, Lester, Onore, & Cook, 1992; Davies, Williams, Yamashita, & Ko Man-Hing, 2005; Rowe, 2020; Rudduck et al., 2003) and that participative approaches are particularly advantageous for disadvantaged groups (see, for example,  Bell, 2017; Diamond, 2014; Siraj & Taggart, 2014). As a time when the attainment gap is widening, this is an important focus for schools.

What does CDM ask of teachers?

The rewards of collaboration are high, but they only come with an investment from school leaders and teachers. With an openness to experiment, patience, mutual trust, and belief in the ability of pupils, CDM offers pupils the chance to explore negotiation, debate and decision-making – all while harnessing the brains of a whole classroom to solve these tough, post-pandemic problems.

What can head teachers do?

Research has shown that strong beliefs, values and actions around participation are not enough to sustain collaboration between teachers and pupils. Essential school systems and policies need to be in place to support such ways of teaching, but the most important thing that heads can do right now is to offer their staff more collaboration in decision-making themselves.

Difficult times made easier

Some school leaders may be feeling so overwhelmed at the moment the idea of taking on something as radical as CDM feels like an impossible task. It is not as daunting as it seems and although I am talking about big aims with far-reaching implications, the process starts with small changes.

Sustainable educational change can only come about when the status quo is disrupted. This disruption can happen when previous practices are no longer available or are recognised as being redundant. We have all recently had great disruption forced upon us, making this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for school leaders to sit down with colleagues and pupils to decide what kind of school culture they really want, and make it happen together.

If head teachers put CDM at the heart of their school culture, and bring evidence of its impact to the attention of the DfE and Ofsted, they will have to think seriously about carrying out evaluation and inspection of teaching and learning in the light of this new post-pandemic era.

Change is inevitable in education and school leaders can choose to involve pupils as active partners in that change. When pupils are explicitly acknowledged as partners in the rebuilding of their school communities, they will own the new culture: ‘We designed it, so we will make it work!’ Who wouldn’t want that?

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

This article was first published in March issue of online journals SecEd and Headteacher Update.


Bell, R. (2017). Psychosocial Pathways and Health Outcomes: Informing action on health inequalities. London: Public Health England.

Boomer, G., Lester, N., Onore, C., & Cook, J. (1992). Negotiating the curriculum: Education for the 21st Century. London: Falmer.

Davies, L., Williams, C., Yamashita, H., & Ko Man-Hing, A. (2005). Inspiring Schools Impact and Outcomes – Taking up the challenge of pupils participation. London: Esmee Fairbairn Foundation with Carnegie UK Trust.

Diamond, A. (2014). Want to Optimize Executive Functions and Academic Outcomes? Simple, just nourish the human spirit. In P. D. Zelazo & M. Sera (Eds.), Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology – Developing Cognitive Control processes: Mechanisms, implications and interventions (Vol. 37, pp. 205–230). Wiley.

Rowe, G. (2020). It’s Our School, It’s Our Time: A companion guide to whole-school collaborative decision-making. Abingdon: Rourledge.

Rudduck, J., Arnot, M., Fielding, M., MacBeath, J., Myers, K., & Reay, D. (2003). Consulting Pupils about Teaching and Learning. Cambridge: Teaching and Learning Research Programme [TLRP].

Siraj, I., & Taggart, B. (2014). Exploring Effective Pedagogy in Primary Schools : Evidence from Research. London: Pearson.

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