Introduction: Developing a co-produced curriculum
Changing Relations – a social enterprise that uses the arts and creative methods to achieve social transformation around gender equality and healthy relationships – recently undertook a project with Ferryhill Business and Enterprise College. The project aimed to explore ways of addressing concerns held by the senior leadership team about risk-taking behaviour amongst the student population. The Deputy Headteacher Tim Pinkney was particularly keen to see peer learning enshrined in any intervention planned. After negotiations between Changing Relations and the school leadership and wellbeing team the decision was made to place student leadership at the heart of the curriculum project.
A student Steering Group was thus selected who highlighted to Lisa Davis, the Director of Changing Relations, the issues related to sex and relationships that most concerned them. It was clear that the students felt that many of these issues were not currently being addressed within the delivery of the curriculum. From these early discussions, a residential was planned, in which the young people were given the opportunity to explore issues ranging from sexism to sexting, sexual consent, sexual exploitation, homophobia and healthy relationships. Their engagement and learning was supported by the involvement of Relate North East, the Rape and Sexual Assault Counselling Centre for Durham and Darlington, DISC, Wear Valley Women’s Aid and Durham Police in addition to Changing Relations. With local artists, including film-maker Rupert Ludlow, also present, the young people further selected the topic that resonated most with them – sexting – and began the work of creating plot and characters for a film that would be used to stimulate discussion around this topic with their peers at school.
In addition to making the film, the young people were involved in planning, researching and designing a booklet for their peers about who to go to for specific sex and relationships concerns, from coming out to seeking support in the wake of sexual assault. Alongside Lisa Davis they also planned and co-facilitated an off-timetable Big Learning Day for their peers, meeting each week for several months to pull all of the strands of the project together. In order to contribute to the evaluation of the project a number of focus groups were held with students at Ferryhill. These were facilitated by Rachel Lofthouse from ECLS. Two of the focus groups were held with student leaders from Years 9 and 10 (the steering group).
Taking responsibility through student leadership
It is clear that a successful aspect of this project was the long term involvement of the student leaders from Years 9 and 10 who took significant responsibility for shaping the project, planning the Big Learning Days and creating the new learning resources. The Year 10 student leaders stated that this had been no mean feat, but recognised that they had “had to work as a team” and were impressed that “it all came together like a jigsaw”. In the same focus group the students stated that they had valued “being treated like an adult, being challenged to consider their own ideas and comfortable giving opinions”.
The student leaders group was not selected purely from the school’s ‘go to’ students, but deliberately included students considered to be at risk by the school pastoral staff. This was illustrated by one of the Year 10 student leaders who said “I wanted to be involved because it sounded important, sounded interesting, and it is close to my heart through personal experience.”
The inclusion of a weekend residential was valued by the student leaders, allowing an immersive and relatively intense learning experience which set the scene for their role in the wider project. This was recognised by the Year 10 student leaders who said that “the residential was fun and interesting, we made films, it was hard work, it was jam packed with lots of info; it was intense.” The Year 9 student leaders stated that the experience as a whole “was a big commitment but we enjoyed it – it was fun.” The year 10 student leaders stated that “this was a different experience, it makes things more interesting, we met people from outside of schools; we were taking responsibility and representing the school at formal meetings.”
For most of the students planning an event and working for a sustained period with outside experts was a unique experience and one which they highly valued, “we got more out of it than we expected” (Year 9 student leaders). It is probable that the depth of their resulting knowledge exceeded those of the rest of the students in Years 9 and 8 for whom the Big Learning Days were planned. This was in part reflected in their abilities to articulate key ideas in the focus groups, with the Year 9 student leaders recognising the quality of their learning about “the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships and where you can go for health advice.” Their greater insight provided the trigger for them from thinking “what’s the harm?” (for example of sexting) to “realising we did not want it to happen to other students” (Year 9 student leaders).
Making the video
Planning, making and showing the video was highly rated by the student leaders, and its authenticity has already been noted above as critical in its impact. The Year 10 student leaders stated “it was our idea to do a film – we thought about the topic and how to do it, we developed the storyline”. The Year 9 student leaders thought that as “young people we could make the video better, we made sure it was a relevant topic choice, and we were the same age as the audience, so people respect it more”, and this perspective mirrors that of the student participants given above. Making the video provided another opportunity for the student leaders to engage with an outside expert – in this case a film maker, who again was recognised for his major contribution. It was also important to the student leaders that the video had a genuine audience, partly in being used to introduce the Big Learning Days themselves, but also in being posted on the school website. The fact that the school organised a premier to which parents were invited and that this was featured in the local press was significant. The student leaders felt proud of their work and the value of it in the local school community and beyond. The Year 9 student leaders stated that they “would like to take it to other schools”. This has some value – but perhaps overlooks quite how important the fact that the video was very much school-situated was. It would be interesting to see whether its impact was similar with a different population of students.
The Big Learning Days
The student leaders’ roles in planning and co-facilitating the Big Learning Days was significant in terms of their own development. They said that they had learned a lot from “having to lead sessions, making the powerpoint, presenting it and doing the activities with the students” (Year 10 student leaders). Without doubt they were proud of their contribution and felt that it was critical in the success of the days, “it was powerful that pupils were speaking to pupils – they were more open to asking questions” (Year 9 student leaders).
Conclusion – what can we learn?
The student leaders acted as a significant bridge between the expertise offered by the outside agencies related to the desired curriculum content and felt needs of the wider student cohort (made up of their peers). The student leaders’ involvement at all stages greatly supported the planning and facilitation of the project. They were responsible for the development of real and locally situated authentic products of the planning phase (the video and booklet) which were actively used as learning resources to support the teaching and learning phase, and indeed outlive that episode as a longer term resource. The Big Learning Days also created a platform (with a deadline) for the student leaders to deliver the outputs of their own learning and planning. This focus provided a real event in which the student leaders’ own learning became purposeful and visible – they had indeed ‘taken responsibility’ and certainly lived up to it.