Power to the Pupils: Overhaul Teacher-Student Relationships to Fight Disengagement

A major two-year pilot programme from independent, cross-party think tank Demos has found that giving students greater control and independence to lead collaborative projects during school hours can help tackle educational disengagement.

The report, Pupil Power, sets out the lessons learned from an innovative pilot scheme held in four secondary schools across England between 2013 and 2015, which tested whether ‘co-production’ could encourage at-risk students to re-engage with learning.

Co-production seeks to involve users in the service delivery process, by making them ‘active partners’ in service design and delivery. It has already proven effective in health and social care sectors, but this pilot extended the concept to education – to test whether it could transform an emerging engagement crisis in English schools.

The pilot targeted students at Key Stage 3, considered a key junction in students’ engagement levels, and gave them the opportunity to work in partnership with teachers and school staff to set their own learning goals and undertake projects outside of lessons that would make positive changes to the school environment.

The report advances Demos’ long-standing work in educational engagement, in the face of research revealing almost half of pupils (45 per cent)[1] have become disengaged from school by the time they sit their GCSEs. Disengagement is strongly associated with challenging behaviour inside and outside the classroom, truanting, and academic under-performance, and can lead to long-term consequences in terms of employment and social outcomes.

Pilots were held in Birmingham, Grimsby, the London Borough of Newham, and Sheffield, between 2013 and 2015. The schools vary significantly in size and pupil characteristics, enabling researchers to test the efficacy of co-production in different environments. Schools were asked to nominate students who were disengaged or at risk of becoming so to take part, supervised by two dedicated members of staff and supported by training from Demos.

The pilot resulted in the following pupil-led projects:

  • A lunchtime sports club, Grimsby
  • Launching a petition to change school uniform, London Borough of Newham
  • Tidying and replanting a school garden, Birmingham
  • Supporting Tour de France celebrations, Sheffield

While impact overall was mixed, largely due to differing levels of participation, the clearest results included improved behaviour, confidence and soft skills, and relationships with teachers. Interviews with staff and students involved in the pilot indicated a high level of satisfaction with the projects, appreciating the element of choice, the ability to speak freely, and the opportunity to draw on their personal talents.

Staff assessments of student improvements suggest that some individual cases saw marked changes in behaviour – in one case, helping a student avoid an exclusion, and in another, encouraging a student to become “a positive influence” on their peers. Overall, almost half of students (45 per cent) saw an improvement in behaviour, and there was an 11 per cent drop in the number of students reporting they frequently get into trouble at school.

The pilot appears to have had the largest impact on students’ active involvement in schooling, building social skills and increasing their visibility and participation. Many staff and students also reported improved relationships as the traditional teacher-student model was redefined through working together in a more relaxed and informal way.

The authors of Pupil Power conclude that there is value to extending co-production to the educational environment in a targeted way, with the right support from schools and teachers.

Commenting on the report, its author, Ian Wybron (Researcher at Demos), said:

“Disengagement from learning is a widespread and persistent problem in education, wasting the potential of learners, closing doors to good jobs, and ultimately harming the wider economy. Co-production offers a new way of approaching the problem: empowering disengaged students to take charge over their learning and to run their own projects, giving them new reasons to want to be in school. Our experience has shown how challenging this process can be, but also its enormous potential to encourage pupils whose experience in education might previously have been defined by their disengagement to be seen in a new light, grow in confidence, and make positive contributions to their school community. “

Sarah Beckett of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation said:

Pupil Power delivers important learning on both the impact and implementation of co-production pilots with disengaged young people. This chimes with our new strategy which prioritises investing in young people. Our Youth Fund offers core funding to organisations using an asset-based approach: a way of working that recognises and builds on young people’s strengths and potential. Pupil Power clearly demonstrates the engagement benefits of this approach.”


Notes to Editors

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think tank. We are an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research. Visit: www.demos.co.uk.

This report was supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, one of the largest independent grant-making foundations in the UK. Established in 1987, its mission is to help people overcome disadvantage and lack of opportunity, so that they can realise their potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives. Visit: www.phf.org.uk



Sophie Gaston – Press and Communications Manager, Demos
[email protected]
0207 367 6325 | (Out of Hours) 07472745678



[1] Ross A, Disengagement from Education among 14-16 year olds, 2009, Department for Children, Schools and Families, http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/10620/1/dcsf-rr178.pdf (accessed 22 December 2015)