The National Student Survey and the Growing Importance of Student Voice in Universities

Student voice has become a prized asset in higher education. While some argue that the pendulum has swung too far in terms of the power attributed to it, clearly it is here to stay and universities have to decide how best to deal with it.  Ever since the advent of the National Student Survey in 2005, its stock value has risen rapidly. Since the introduction of higher tuition fees and reduction in funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, universities have come to take the results of the survey more and more seriously, convinced that its impact on application numbers becomes more important every year. So concerned are some institutions with maximising National Student Survey response rates that they have created specific posts to drive home its importance and prompt students to complete it.

But while both universities and student bodies have focused much attention on marketing and promoting the survey, less attention has been paid to how best to engage students with the process of evaluation and the evidence they should draw on to ensure that their responses are suitably informed and represent a balanced and accurate reflection of their university experiences.

The National Union of Students has acknowledged that many students neglect the survey, largely because they do not realise just how seriously their responses are taken, or indeed how important they are. Student leaders have therefore concentrated on raising awareness, aiming to maximising response rates.

This is important because results are only published for those courses in which the response rate is at least 50%. But how well-equipped are students to comment insightfully on aspects of pedagogic and subject knowledge expertise? How do we know, for example, that they are not basing their views on superficial and arbitrary criteria such as the lecturer’s personality rather than an informed understanding of pedagogy or subject knowledge?

Of course students should be given a platform to express their views about their learning experiences, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that they will somehow be able to produce a fair, valid and reliable assessment of the competence and performance of their teachers at the end of it. My research into the use of lesson observation in the English further education sector highlighted how difficult this is even for the most highly experienced observers working with tried and tested assessment criteria over a sustained period of time.

We therefore need more transparent dialogue among university staff and students about the nature and purpose of the National Student Survey, why it is important to gather feedback on students’ experiences and what impact that data has on the experiences of future students, along with how best to approach answering the questions. I am not suggesting for one moment that university staff attempt to “coach”  students in the content of their responses, but that they see the process as providing a stimulus for generating meaningful, reciprocal discussion about wider issues, such as the teaching and learning experience and student evaluation.

For example, the first two sections of the survey ask students about the quality of teaching, assessment and feedback. Surely these are aspects of practice that both parties need to discuss throughout the course? In the realm of teacher education it is generally accepted as good practice that it is sometimes helpful for teachers to share with students the rationale behind their decisions on choice of teaching methods or learning resources — in other words, why they are doing what they are doing and why they think it is the best way to go about tackling a particular topic.

To stimulate initial discussion, lecturers should give their students an insight into why they choose to employ particular teaching styles, what they consider to be the most effective ways of providing feedback. This should not be presented in a vacuum purely to prepare students for the National Student Survey, but should be embedded into live courses so that the discussion is put in context and makes sense. Equally, as part of such discussion, students should be given the opportunity to put forward their opinions, ask questions and seek clarification, with a view to them feeling a genuine sense of inclusion in the ongoing development of the curriculum.

This type of open, reciprocal dialogue between staff and students is crucial. Without it universities risk students basing their responses to the student survey not on an informed understanding of the complex decision-making processes that teaching staff invariably undergo when planning, delivering and assessing a programme of study, but on a hunch.

Dr Matt O’Leary

CRADLE, University of Wolverhampton


This piece was originally written for an online publication entitled ‘Research Fortnight: HE Policy’ in December 2013 

A warped view of education seen through the eyes of Sir Michael Wilshaw

As I sit at my kitchen table after having returned from NEEC 2014 in Nottingham, I do so still with a sense of disbelief at some of the comments made by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector in his speech on Wednesday 20th January 2014. It’s not my intention to carry out a forensic analysis of his whole speech, tempting as that might be, but just to concentrate on some of the quotes that struck a particular chord with me and exemplify how out of touch I believe SMW really is with the world of education in this country, not to mention some of the contradictions present in his speech! For those of you interested in getting a quick overview of some of the key soundbites from his speech, the following BBC article should bring you up to speed.

One of the first comments he made early on in his speech was:

‘We’ve never had a more motivated, more enthused group of young teachers than we have now’. 

I have mixed feelings about what my instinct tells me to write about this as I want to ensure that I’m balanced in my interpretation of the comment and equally don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon. At the same time, it’s important to situate this comment in the context in which it was made (i.e. at the longest running education conference in the country) and by whom it was made (i.e. the grand custodian of education standards). One interpretation of this comment could be that it’s encouraging to hear the Ofsted Chief talk so positively about the motivation and enthusiasm of young teachers as it projects a positive image of the current generation of new entrants to the profession. Whether this is based on a personal assumption of SMW or feedback from his own inspectors about the time they spend in schools and colleges during inspections is difficult to decipher. However, given the way in which he seems to pay little attention to the views of the profession or the findings of contemporary educational research into the experiences of newly qualified teachers, I’m inclined to believe that it must be largely a personal assumption, which brings me onto another of his comments.

‘Teachers now have more freedom and autonomy to teach than ever before’.

This was the comment that had me gasping in disbelief more than any other and it was the one on which I challenged him at the conference. I made the point that this could only be a personal assumption as it not only flies in the face of what current research tells us about the working lives of teachers, but also what teachers themselves (from NQTs to the very experienced) say about what it means to be a teacher. And that is that whilst it is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating and privileged jobs to have, that positive aspect is being continually squeezed and compromised by the systemic pressures that have come to dominate the everyday work of teachers. What I mean by these ‘systemic pressures’ is the continuous ratcheting up of performance management systems that have come to be the key drivers in the work of schools and colleges. These endemic systems have given rise to a culture of perpetual surveillance and agencies like Ofsted have played a key role in making this happen. As Michel Foucault reminds us in his famous work Discipline and Punish,  ‘Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action’ (1977 p. 201). For me the term ‘Ofsted ready’ has become the modern-day epitome of Foucault’s words!

SMW then went onto claim that the reason for the high dropout rate of teachers within the first five years of having qualified was due to having been inadequately prepared to deal with bad behaviour in schools by their teacher trainers. Thus those responsible for training teachers are to blame for this high level of attrition. Hold on a minute Sir Michael, is this the very same group of people who played a key role in nurturing the most enthusiastic and motivated generation of teachers we’ve ever had??? No contradiction there then! Not only is his claim about the causes of the exodus of teachers reminiscent of what you might expect a character from a Dickens’ novel to come out, but it is also a factual inaccuracy. Look at the evidence Sir Michael. As a starting point, look at some of the recent Ofsted reports into ITE provision and the exit surveys of those leaving the profession.

Yes, behaviour management is an ongoing challenge facing all teachers in the early years of their careers. But even when I look back on the secondary PGCE I did over 20 years’ ago now and acknowledge that it was, on the whole, a very poor course that did little to prepare me for the world of teaching, I don’t think any amount of preparation or training in behaviour management would have equipped me for dealing with some of the students I worked with in my first two years. I learnt behaviour management largely on the job, observing and listening to my colleagues along with trying out a range of different strategies.

No, Sir Michael, the real answer as to why there is such a high dropout rate amongst teachers in the early years of their career cannot be attributed to inadequate preparation in behaviour management but lies much closer to home. It is because the very ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’ that you alluded to in your speech has been and continues to be eroded by a punitive inspection system like the one you are responsible for leading.

Never before has there been such a pressing need to re-establish professional trust and autonomy for teachers to allow them to take ownership of their professional learning and development rather than having priorities imposed on them by others. What teachers need is more collaboration and less coercion when it comes to interventions in classrooms and a greater trust in their professionalism and professional capabilities to steer change and improvement. So Sir Michael, if you want to make a real and sustained difference to the quality of teachers and the learning experience in schools, I suggest you start by working WITH the profession rather than against it.

Does lesson observation still have a role to play in teaching?

In a recent tweet @LearningSpy referred to lesson observation as ‘problematic’ and posed the question, ‘What if we didn’t do it?’ There’s no doubt that the use of observation in the English education system has become a matter of some debate and even controversy in recent years. The crux of much of this debate centres on the way in which observation has become normalised in colleges and schools as a crude, reductive assessment tool, largely serving the interests of a performance management agenda with little benefit to practitioners and resulting in many counterproductive consequences. Teachers have come to experience a growing sense of disempowerment, increased levels of anxiety and general discontent in relation to the use of observation over the last two decades. But is this reason enough to discontinue its use? Whilst I have been critical of what I refer to as ‘performative’ and ‘restrictive’ approaches to observation in much of my work to date, I firmly believe that it has an important role to play in improving the quality of teaching and learning along with contributing to a greater understanding of these processes. For me, it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. What’s needed is a fundamental reconceptualisation of the way in which the profession engages with observation as a form of intervention. As a starting point, this means stepping outside the current constraints of viewing observation predominantly as a method of assessing and monitoring teachers’ classroom performance and realising its potential as a method of collaborative enquiry.

The way forward in maximising the potential of observation as a tool for improving the quality and understanding of teaching and learning lies in the adoption of an enquiry-based approach where teachers are empowered to become active researchers of their classrooms. What teachers need is more collaboration and less coercion when it comes to interventions in classrooms and a greater trust in their professionalism and professional capabilities to steer change and improvement. Peer-based models of observation have been shown to offer the potential to enhance pedagogic understanding and in turn contribute to the on-going process of teacher development. Putting the case forward for such models as a viable replacement to dominant performative models is now the next challenge that lies ahead for teachers if they are to reclaim classroom observation as a tool for empowering their professional learning and wrestle back control from the hands of the ‘Quality Police’.

‘Graded Observations – What the experts say’: Future of FE conference, Guildford UK – March 2013

Published on 6 Jul 2013

This is a very short montage of video clips featuring Matt O’ Leary, Geoff Petty and Matthew Coffey from OFSTED discussing the issues surrounding the use of graded observations in the Further Education (FE) Sector

Should we let students evaluate teachers’ lessons?

Richard Cairns, Head Master of Brighton College (a fee-paying boarding and day school), recently called on the government to allow student evaluation to play a greater role in assessing the competence and performance of their teachers, arguing that it would help school leaders to deal more effectively with under-performing teachers. Unsurprisingly, Mr Cairns’ suggestion has provoked some angry responses among the teaching profession with many teachers questioning the legitimacy and usefulness of such an exercise. Nevertheless, it does beg the question as to whether this is a plausible proposal worth considering.


 Student evaluation is not a new phenomenon. It has been an integral feature of many programmes of study across education sectors in the UK for some time. However, it strikes me that there are two aspects of Mr Cairns’ suggestion, in particular, that are markedly different to how student evaluations have been used to date. Firstly, there is the proposal that greater weighting should be given to such evaluations by linking them directly to the formal process of teacher appraisal. And secondly, it focuses specifically on teacher performance, singling this out as the key criterion on which judgements should be made about the quality of the learning experience at the exclusion of other key variables, notably the students themselves and their learning environment.


The idea that student feedback has an important role to play in the improvement of teaching and learning seems relatively straightforward and uncontested. What is less straightforward and more contested is how influential that role should be in evaluating classroom practice and what such feedback should ultimately be used for. Is it to inform collegial discussions around the student experience or simply to pass judgement on the performance of individual teachers? I think the reason why Mr Cairns’ comments have provoked such strength of feeling among teachers is that they seem to appeal more to the latter of these two roles, which inevitably enters a delicate and dangerous territory.


 The fact that Mr Cairns presides over a fee-paying school should not go unnoticed as it suggests that he is perhaps predisposed to conceptualising students as ‘customers’. One of the dangers of this is that student voice can thus be attributed more credence and value than in reality it can claim to possess. Of course students should be given a platform to express their views about their learning experiences, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that they will somehow be able to produce a fair, valid and reliable assessment of the competence and performance of their teachers at the end of it. My own research into the use of lesson observation in the Further Education (FE) sector in England has highlighted how difficult this is even for the most highly experienced observers working with tried and tested assessment criteria over a sustained period of time. If we add to this the reliance on the reductive practice of graded lesson observations that has come to dominate teacher assessment in recent years, then we are in danger of repeating such flawed practice this time around but with students at the helm.


By all means, let’s embrace student evaluations as an important element in a diverse portfolio of evidence that we might use to inform discussions about the quality of teaching and learning, along with others like student achievement rates, peer review, self-evaluation etc. But let’s not repeat the same mistakes that have already been made in seeking to reduce the complex process of teacher appraisal to its lowest common denominator.


Dr Matt O’Leary is a principal lecturer and research fellow in post-compulsory education in the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education. He is the author of ‘Classroom observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning’, recently published by Routledge: