These groups provided a supportive space for participants to be honest about their experiences of school and learning both prior to, and over the course of, the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the wide-ranging challenges brought about by the pandemic – further entrenched poverty and inequality, digital exclusion, and limitations on social interaction chief among them – it is perhaps unsurprising that experiences shared by children and young people were not always positive.
While many contributions were confronting – including experiences on being excluded, of feeling unfairly judged, and of not being given opportunities to have their voices heard – there were also heartening reflections on vital support provided by teachers, and the significant impact that positive, trusting relationships with both school staff and family support workers can have in improving their learning.
So, what did those who participated in focus groups tell us they need moving forward?
For many it was fundamentally about a culture of mutual respect – a point neatly encapsulated by one young person who powerfully stated: “Treat me as an equal. Be bothered about me, and I’ll be bothered about you.”
It was striking that discussions focused just as prominently on cultural and social dimensions as they did practical concerns, with great consideration given to the ways in which they interact.
Engendering a culture of mutual respect, where rights are respected and upheld, was seen as crucial to achieving the practical changes they told us they need: if the culture underpinning their learning environment ensures they are truly listened to, understood, and respected, then, in turn, calls for greater flexibility on class moves and more empathetic responses to behaviour may be more readily met.
There are many lessons to be learned from what children and young people said they need in these focus groups, but one key message threads through them all: the voices of children and young people must be given real weight in order to achieve change.
Read the full school experience report here.