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Breaking the silence: children’s voices and Ofsted

May 13 2019, by

The public consultation on the proposed changes to Ofsted’s inspection framework was not fit for purpose as far as gathering children and young people’s views, so through an innovative project, they wrote to Amanda Spielman directly.

Where are the young voices?

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child states that young people must participate in shaping laws, policies, programmes and services. The UN reports that in the UK, children’s views are not heard and reassert the importance of them being ‘listened to’. Al Aynsley-Green (former UK Children’s Commissioner) describes the UK education system as an ‘utter mess’. His book, The Betrayal of British Childhood, illuminates the ‘cultural disconnect’ between policy makers and those affected by it, which leads to policy failures causing ‘much harm’.

As a consequence of government policy, UK schools are becoming increasingly hostile, intolerant environments for young people, particularly those with SEN and other vulnerabilities, as evidenced by the ‘scandal’ of ever-increasing permanent exclusion and off-rolling. The UN, in describing the goals of education have stated:

Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full

UNCRC, Article 29

Does education achieve this? As it stands, young people’s voices are not sought by the government in regards to the purpose and structure of education. This is unacceptable; in no other context would service users be ignored in such cavalier fashion.

The project begins…

To address the issue the ‘Breaking the Silence’ project was launched in January 2019 with States of Mind, a charity that seeks to empower young people to play an active role in designing more psychologically healthy schools and communities. They conducted four focus groups involving 80 young people, who were asked questions about the purpose of Ofsted and what impact inspections have on schools, teachers and young people. Subsequently, seven young people analysed the transcripts, supervised by States of Mind, and put together a summary of themes.

The young people wanted to respond directly, using the Ofsted consultation document. However, this was not fit for purpose. No space was provided to express innovative views so they sent a summary letter to Amanda Spielman directly, raising their concerns and presenting coherent solutions.

Readers of the letter will find a well argued narrative, based around key themes. Most notably, they assert that education fails to develop their personality, talents or abilities. The research highlights that ‘what is considered learning in education is, in fact, the repetitive memorisation of facts’ and ‘we are breaking the next generation by not giving them the necessary skills for the future’.

We are breaking the next generation by not giving them the necessary skills for the future

Huge concerns are raised around the propensity of high stakes examinations to create a ‘narrow conception of success’ where a young person’s ‘personality is stripped from them’. This precipitates ‘high levels of anxiety and stress’.

Students feel unfulfilled, disengaged and describe the prevalence of ‘non-academic stigma’; those not skilled academically often ‘internalise a sense of shame and low self-worth’. Participants were particularly critical of the way education forces conformity to a ‘standardised, academic measure of success’ which ‘ funnels students into university’ whilst totally neglecting an individual’s unique ‘values and ambitions’.

What young people want from education

The ‘Breaking the Silence’ project demonstrates that they want an education that reflects life and acknowledges individual differences. An environment where they can ‘take ownership’ of learning, begin to ‘understand themselves’, prepare for the world and become ‘good human beings’. They want to:

…discover their strengths and weaknesses by applying themselves to practical, real world scenarios, while allowing them to start distinguishing their unique values and preferences for the future.

The young people have yet to receive a response from Ofsted or Amanda Spielman, who have also ignored our requests on Twitter to meet with the young people or respond to their views.

The role of the EP – what next?

For decades the EP community has sought to establish, ‘our unique role’. In my view, we are uniquely well-placed to challenge the status quo and champion the voices of young people. EPs observe the damage caused by an education system that teaches content, not children, and excludes the most vulnerable. As ‘scientist-practitioners’, we need to be bold and rebellious. We need to proclaim our credentials and lead conversations around education reform.

EPs are exceptional at ‘hearing’ the voices of young people. Where we need to improve is ensuring their voices are ‘listened to’. States of Mind are building a community of young education visionaries with clear ideas for change. Let’s work with them and reform education together. Breaking the Silence is the beginning of a journey; one that EPs should help to shape.


Please contact States of Mind to get involved in Breaking the Silence. The next step is to co-deliver an event alongside young people, to promote their ideas and connect with a wider audience. The project has been supported by Psychologists for Social Change, who are also campaigning for education reform.


About Chris Bagley

Chris is an Educational Psychologist and researcher who works with the most disadvantaged members of society, whose voices are ignored or minimised in public debate. His goal is to co-create a psychologically healthy education system that is genuinely responsive to the needs of all young people.

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