The story so far

Breaking the Silence started in January 2019. With an upcoming government consultation about Ofsted’s new education evaluation framework, we wondered what young people thought about how their schools were assessed. Recognising that students are rarely asked about their knowledge and experience of education, States of Mind launched the project to capture their perspectives. The core aims of Breaking the Silence are to challenge the educational status quo and present actionable alternatives that meet the needs of young people and support them to flourish.

At the core of our work is the belief that, (i) young peoples’ views should be centred in all decisions around their education and, (ii) they are capable of conceptualising, defining and actioning meaningful change. Breaking the Silence is a constantly evolving research endeavour and is currently entering its fourth phase. Read more here.

Throughout the Breaking the Silence project, a participatory action research approach has been used to ensure that young people are active participants, not passive subjects. Students co-develop our projects; they shape the research questions, conduct their own surveys, focus groups and interviews, analyse the data and decide how this is to be disseminated, supported by States of Mind and our partner organisation, the Institute of Education, UCL. Each year, we work with a new cohort of young people who are in year 12 and attending sixth form colleges in the London borough of Newham. Young people apply to take part and commit to weekly sessions throughout the academic year.

Phase one

2019 - What do young people think about Ofsted and its impact on their education?

Focus groups were initiated with young people from a number of London colleges. Some volunteered to analyse the data, supported by States of Mind. They wrote a letter to Amanda Spielman outlining their findings. In particular, they highlighted major flaws around how education is measured and how this leads to ‘memorisation’ instead of learning, negatively impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of students and the lack of real world value of much of their schooling. They aspire for more autonomy and for education to provide opportunities to: ‘discover their strengths and weaknesses… while allowing them to start distinguishing their unique values and preferences for the future’.

The students received a response from Ofsted which did not address the problems raised, nor propose any solutions to the complex issues raised by the students.

Phase two

2019/20 - What is the impact of schooling on the identity, psychological health and personal development of young people?

The following year, a new cohort of students considered the outcomes of phase one and decided to take the project in a different direction. They constructed questionnaires and co-facilitated focus groups and interviews with the support of an IOE doctorate student. Check out the summary of findings from the questionnaire and focus groups. A disturbing picture emerged of an education system that values results above human flourishing, stifles creativity, identity, personal development and often negatively impacts the mental health of young people. They asserted many ideas for educational evolution, including increased “personal input” to curricula, “different ways of assessing” and valuing mental health and individuality. Two podcasts were also put together by States of Mind alongside student participants, to further bring the findings to life. One of the student leaders, Reegan Mason, wrote a piece outlining the emerging issues and ideas for innovation.

Phase 3

2020/21 - Designing an alternative education evaluation framework

In this phase, a new cohort of young people studied the current Ofsted framework, alongside national and international research around education evaluation. Subsequently, they co-interviewed Headteachers, former Ofsted inspectors, academics and others alongside a doctorate researcher who fully documented the process. The group then drafted an evaluation framework called the ‘Review for Progress and Development’ (RPD). For a fuller summary of the direction of phases three and four, see here. The RPD differs hugely from Ofsted’s external accountability, focussing instead on school self-evaluation and collaborative evaluation across school networks. The final draft is a work in progress and a documentary is currently being edited that followed the project over the course of the year. It will be shared very soon!

At our Education Futures in Action conference in July 2021, co-organised alongside UCL, young innovators from States of Mind presented their evidence-based ideas around educational transformation with candour and eloquence. Three leaders of the Breaking the Silence project have presented their ideas at various national conferences and to the Education Select Committee.

Phase 4

2021/22 - Refining & implementing the Review of Progress and Development

A new cohort of students are coming together from late September. Again, a PAR approach will be employed. They will work with States of Mind practitioners, students from previous phases and an IOE doctorate student to develop an understanding of phases one-three, then refine the RPD. This will be followed by implementation of the RPD and evaluation of the process alongside students and educators across a number of schools, including School 21 and London Academy of Excellence in Newham borough and (hopefully) other schools.

The students involved in this exciting phase are beginning to formulate their aims for the year. It will be fascinating to see how the RPD develops and the response of school leaders and teachers when taking part in this alternative evaluation approach. We hope that as phase 4 comes to fruition, Breaking the Silence will:

promote conversation about how education is evaluated, show how young people can work together to create actionable, psychologically healthy alternatives to current education systems, prompt people to consider the positioning of young people in the big decisions that affect their lives and the extent to which they are currently disempowered, present an actionable education evaluation tool that meets the needs of diverse young people and can be applied across education provisions.