Speaking more, not speaking for

Students take the lead on safeguarding their college environment

Pictured: Emma, a student council representative, presents findings from the safeguarding questionnaire to RCM governors.

When it comes to determining how safe students feel in college, the obvious experts are the students themselves. With support, every student at Royal College Manchester completed a questionnaire asking for their views on their safety as well as the course content. Answering questionnaires at regular intervals has several benefits: students with complex communication needs may struggle to request help when they have identified a problem so we need to be prepared to give them additional support and create opportunities for them to alert us to any issues, and students can see the impact that expressing their views about the college has, which is vital for our students’ developing self-advocacy skills.

The benefits of this survey have already been felt by students. One young woman, Maryam, indicated that she did not feel safe when leaving college and there was a problem with her transport. Further investigation determined that the taxi Maryam had travelled in had a ramp which was too high and she worried about hurting her head. This matter was immediately addressed with the relevant authority. Several young people following our Sensory course made staff aware that they were unhappy about the lack of space to store equipment in one corridor, a particular concern for some students using wheelchairs or walking frames. More temporary storage has already been found and staff are looking at a long-term solution. Other students felt that the new timetable, which reduces the number of transitions students must make, made them feel much more confident and better able to communicate with staff.

The majority of students following the Autism Support Course felt safe in most of the college environment, with the exception of busy communal environments such as the library or the reception area. Some added that other students’ challenging behaviour could make them feel unsafe, and one young man was supported to explain that he needs staff supporting him to use less language and sign at times, as he can find it overwhelming and stressful to be faced with too much information. Another man indicated that while he liked having his own swipe card as it made him feel more independent and as though his adult status was respected (a perspective shared with many other students who explained why they liked the swipe card system), he felt anxious about a set of doors where his swipe card did not work. Student council representatives approached the governors for support in fixing the doors in question and maintaining the accessibility of the system. 

Students following the ‘Preparation for Life and Work’ course indicated that they were generally happy with the college environment: all students reported that they approved of the rules against students hitting and biting one another, and many felt that the secure gates at the site entrance and the no mobile phones rules made them feel safer at college. However, several students expressed their concern about the speed of some delivery drivers and the college students are organising an onsite traffic demonstration to remind drivers to slow down. They asked that the college governors lend their support to the demonstration and that they continue to invite student representatives to attend governor’s meetings as well as visiting student council meetings in turn.

Other questions addressed the course content and encouraged students to reflect on what they have already learned and consider which skills they want to learn in their time at RCM.

The questionnaire proves beyond any question that learner voice is hugely significant for our students. It empowers them to address problems and develop their self-advocacy skills, which will in turn help promote their independence. Young people must learn that when they have something to say, we will listen and we will support them to get the results they need – and they need to be able to see those results for themselves and know that it was their work to communicate their needs which achieved that. That’s why, going forward, we need to ensure that more structured opportunities for students to evaluate their college – like this survey – are available, but also that student feedback from their interactions with staff every session is carefully considered.

The success of this questionnaire in highlighting our students’ views so that concerns can be addressed demonstrates one thing: as educators, we need to speak to our students more and provide even more opportunities to learn self-advocacy skills. When we can demonstrate that expressing their opinions can bring about real change, our students learn that they have the right to make decisions about their lives, and the power of their own voices.