Of manifestos and modelling

By Dr Lorna Smith (Associate Professor in Education), Dr Jessie Abrahams (Lecturer in Education), Jo Carrington (Assistant Head of Literacy and English at Clevedon School) and PhD student, School of Education, University of Bristol.

We are in an era where top-down prescription in English secondary schools is greater than ever. This often results in students’ voices being diminished and opportunities to talk suppressed. For example, some schools virtue-signal their strict ‘no-hands up’ policy – meaning that students speak in class only when they are invited to. Therefore, although high-quality talk has long been established as a vital component of learning (Alexander, 2020; Bleiman, 2018; Littleton and Mercer, 2013), there may be few opportunities for students to experience ‘natural’ conversation – listening and contributing according to the ebb of the discussion.

This silencing of students in classrooms might also be played out in a school’s wider context, where students lack the opportunity to make decisions on issues that impact them. Although the vast majority of schools have a school council (Whitty & Wisby, 2008), many of these involve a limited number of confident students and marginalise minority voices.

Clevedon School is responding to this dual challenge by actively working to give students voice. One way of doing so is the establishment of a Clevedon Student Leadership Academy. The inspiration of Jo Carrington, Clevedon’s Assistant Head of Literacy and English – and current PhD student in the SoE – the purpose of the Academy is to develop student voice and student agency within Clevedon, and to develop the oracy skills of those involved. The SoE was honoured to host the Academy’s inaugural event in December 2023.

The Student Leadership Academy is not a traditional school council. It comprises 38 students ranging from Year 7 (11 years old) to Year 13 (18 years old), and it is fully representative of Clevedon’s cohort, including students of all levels of attainment, the economically secure and economically disadvantaged, those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and those who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL). The students had to formally apply, but the reality was that no one was turned away. From the outset, Jo aspired to ensure that the Academy focused not only on identity and leadership in the school community, but the wider Clevedon community too. For instance, she gained early support from the outreach manager of the local historic Curzon cinema, enabling the formation of creative links and partnerships.

The purpose of the inaugural event in the SoE was to officially launch the Academy, help members get to know each other, and begin to explore what they want to achieve and how they will go about it.

After some getting-to-know-you activities, Jo introduced Tom Leimdorfer, an ex-headteacher and local councillor. Tom used a bag of 250 x 5 pence pieces (each coin representing £20,000) to support students’ understanding about how town councils are run. Jessie Abrahams then introduced students to her research area – social-class inequalities in education (Abrahams, 2018) – and to some creative methodological tools she has used, including plasticine modelling. During the second half of the session, students created plasticine models to represent their vision for Clevedon School. Inspired by Tom’s talk, students began to explore their own identities within the community, and work together in groups on how they could create positive change.

Students came to learn of the benefits of working with modelling clay – one of which is that it enables ‘thinking time’ which can help tap into complex and abstract issues not always easy to immediately express using words alone (Gauntlett, 2007; Ingram, 2011). Fun was had all round as some beautiful and intricate models were made, bringing attention to a range of different areas that students felt could be improved in their school. One of the strengths of using plasticine modelling in research encounters is that it helps to shift power from the person asking the questions (researcher) to the people answering them (participant) (Mannay, 2015). The activity demonstrated how we can use creativity to help us bring voices forward, especially voices that may otherwise be silenced or unheard.

The Academy now meets weekly and communicates through its own Microsoft Team beyond this. Since the inaugural event, the student leaders have petitioned for – and won! – a £2,000 grant from the local council for an environmental project. They have been supported by Sustainable Clevedon (who have visited the school to help inspire them). Along with increasing support from The Curzon, the students are now working towards presenting their ideas as part of a community event on 20th/ 21st April to support environmental awareness and action on International Earth Day.


Abrahams, J.  (2018) Option blocks that block options: exploring inequalities in GCSE and A Level options in England, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39:8, 1143-1159, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2018.1483821

Alexander, R (2020) Dialogic Teaching and the Study of Classroom Talk: A Developmental Bibliography. Available at:  https://robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Alexander-dialogic-teaching-bibliography-July-2020.pdf [accessed 23.01.24]

Bleiman, B (2018) It’s Good To Talk. English & Media Centre. Available at: https://www.englishandmedia.co.uk/projects/its-good-to-talk/ [accessed 23.01.24]

Gauntlett, D. (2007) Creative explorations: new approaches to identities and audiences. London: Routledge.

Ingram, N. (2011) ‘Within school and beyond the gate: the difficulties of being educationally successful and working class’, Sociology. 45(2), pp.287-302.

Littleton, K. and Mercer, N. (2013) Interthinking: Putting Talk to Work London: Routledge

Mannay, D. (2015) Visual, narrative and creative research methods: Application, reflection and ethics. Routledge.

Whitty, G & Wisby, E (2008) real Decision Making? School Councils in Action. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267702600_Real_Decision_Making_School_Councils_in_Action. [accessed 23.01.24]