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Students at I CAN’s Dawn House School participate in pupil voice activity commissioned by the government.

Pupil voice consultations are well regarded in schools as a way for teachers to gather useful feedback from students about their education and how it could be improved. In November, students at I CAN’s Dawn House School participated in a pupil voice activity – but one commissioned by government. Currently, the DfE is consulting on the Draft Code of Practice to accompany its special needs reforms and the Council for Disabled Children (CDC) has been funded to do this on their behalf.

The School selected 10 students from many volunteers in the post-16 provision to provide their perspective on the reforms. Though this sounds unlikely, each young person was to be rewarded with a £10 voucher for taking part, so interest was high. Despite students’ enthusiasm for the focus group, staff thought it wise to supplement this with some knowledge of the subject. So before the CDC arrived, students learned about the stages of making a new law including Royal Assent (which might have involved Her Majesty climbing to the top of the resulting paperwork mountain had the word not been clarified!). We discussed important aspects of the Code: what should good Local Authorities include in their Local Offer? Should all children with SLCN like theirs have a chance to attend a school like Dawn House with lots of expertise? How can LAs involve young people in making these decisions? What would you want to know from an information, advice and support service? Who would you want giving you information, advice and support? (Speech and Language Therapists were a popular choice!)

The students were all 16yrs and over so the aspect of the Draft Code of Practice which was most hotly debated concerned young people of this age getting the final say in decisions about their support, including the right to appeal about the support offered. The Code says that young people can involve their families in this, but sometimes young people may not want their families so closely involved and this decision should be respected. Opinions about this varied but generally students agreed with this change, though most said they would continue to rely on good advice from their parents (and SLTs!) before they made any decisions.

During the CDC focus group, many of the questions explored the issue of how confident the students felt about making decisions and how the new Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) should work. We played a true/false game in which the young people were posed a series of statements, e.g. ‘parents always know best’, ‘doctors should share young people’s health needs with teachers’  and students provided considered responses, (divided opinions on the first and yes to the second). Then a long list of different types of information that could be included in the ECHPs: career aims, social strengths and difficulties, fears, etc. Here perspectives varied considerably and the only one which united them all was whether boyfriend / girlfriend history should be included. All vehemently opposed to this!

The CDC session was well run and engaging for the young people throughout – and vouchers for all at the end ensured a successful conclusion. The students expressed confidence overall in the direction of the changes, but ultimately, as with all pupil voice exercises, the true value will only be realised through those who ask the questions really listening to the answers that come back. Government will be provided with many perspectives through this stage of consultation and must take account of them all if the Children and Families Bill and the accompanying Code of Practice is to improve on the system it replaces

By Glenn Major, I CAN Communication Advisor