The effects of COVID-19 and school closures on student voice in secondary schools

The results of the Council of Europe and UNESCO teacher survey conducted in Europe and the MENA region indicated that the pandemic and subsequent school closures during 2020 lead to a significant decrease of opportunities for students to have their voice heard and learn the competences to assert their rights. Regardless of their geographical location, the vast majority of schools reduced their voice opportunities for young people. In about half of the schools that participated in the survey, teachers reported that student governance opportunities, like school councils, and community action and volunteering projects had been suspended. Visits to government institutions fell by three quarters. Compared to teaching in the physical classroom, opportunities for discussion were reported by teachers to have reduced by about 40 percent.

Figure 1. Percentage drop in the amount/number of student voice opportunities offered during school closure in comparison with pre-pandemic levels in Europe and MENA countries.

The survey was developed by Professor Bryony Hoskins and Dr Steven Donbavand from Roehampton University as part of a project on the effects of COVID-19 on student voice, a new initiative by UNESCO and the CoE. The survey was disseminated to secondary school teachers across Europe and the MENA region via UNESCO and CoE school networks and social media. The survey asked teachers about the student voice situation in their schools 6 months before they were closed due to COVID-19 and then what was offered to promote student voice during the period of school closure and lockdown (from March 2020 onwards). The survey took place between July and September 2020, and was made available in three languages – Arabic, English and French. Over 1000 teachers participated, with about 60% from Europe and about 40% from the MENA region. Furthermore, Hoskins and Donbavand coordinated case studies that were conducted by local researchers, investigating schools that managed to sustain student voice projects during the periods of school closure. Teachers and students were interviewed by local researchers during September and October 2020. The 8 case studies were conducted in France, Greece, Jordan, Lebanon, Portugal, Romania, Tunisia and the UK.

The results of the research also showed that there were differences between student experiences of lockdown according to socioeconomic background. Private (fee paying) schools were much more likely to be able to keep community student voice projects going than public (state) schools, and private schools were more likely to have been able to continue their student councils (of other forms of governance structures) than state schools. Disadvantaged students also faced more difficulties accessing the learning opportunities offered by their schools during lockdown. This was due to limited access to technology to view online classes (in particular when there was more than 1 child in the family), weak, slow or no Internet infrastructure at home (for example those in refugee camps), and in some countries in the MENA region weak and insecure electricity supply. 

Based on these findings, Professor Hoskins and Dr Donbavand issued a set of eight policy and practice recommendations to develop resilient and quality student voice opportunities within schools that will be able to withstand future crises and possible future school closures. These include building a strong and lively civic culture within the school, which can be achieved through ensuring that student voice is both a priority for schools and for individual educators; that student voice initiatives are embedded into the school curricula and that stronger bonds between schools and the surrounding communities are developed. Targeting of disadvantaged students for student voice projects was recommended rather than working with self-selected volunteers, and ensuring that extra time and funding is available to be inclusive. Focusing on digital solutions, Hoskins and Donbavand also recommend that it is necessary to provide a minimum level of digital infrastructure, skills and familiarity for both the school/teacher and the home environment/student. Existing new online learning opportunities need to be used while new digital approaches to working with diversity and difference in an online classroom and targeting hard-to-reach groups need to be developed.