Student Partnership Agreement: an interview with Donna Jones

We spoke to Donna Jones, Head of Social Work and interim Head of Subject Area for Leadership in Communities, Refugee, Social Work and Youth courses, about partnering with students.

Date: 1 September 2022

We spoke to Donna Jones, Head of Social Work and interim Head of Subject Area for Leadership in Communities, Refugee, Social Work and Youth courses, who shared her insight on working with students as partners.

Can you summarise what the issue/concern/project was you wanted to work in partnership with students?

My approach to education is to push against traditional ways of teaching, and develop an arts-based, relational approach. London Met is definitely the place to do that! My team is dismantling the traditional power hierarchies that can exist between academic staff and students, both in the classroom and within formal decision-making spaces and this approach underpins everything I do both personally and politically. This work has informed the redesign of our BSc and MSc courses with it also aligning with the Education for Social Justice Framework.

I live by the belief that “the personal is the political” and approach life in the same way I do my educational practices; working to dismantle systems of power and questioning the dominant institutional structures  within which we teach and learn. In social work we talk a lot about empowering practice and working in partnership, but I am interested in putting this into practice for the benefit of students and staff. Sometimes buzz words are thrown around but when it comes to ‘giving up power’ we may find that we don’t actually want to do that. It’s vital that we push against the grain, I want student voices in the spaces where issues are discussed and decisions are made. 

I decided that one way to do this was to ask students to co-chair the Course Committee Meetings with me. I initially made the assumption that our students may have been in these types of formal spaces before, but actually, often they hadn’t.

Can you talk about how you went about working in partnership with students? For example what activities you undertook (any pedagogy, points of reference, frameworks?)

When I initially brought up the issue of co-chairing, students were nervous  about what it would involve and felt quite intimidated and unskilled to take on such a role, so I thought it would be a great teaching opportunity to reassure and support them to understand the importance of their voice in decision-making. I want to help our students understand the importance of articulating concerns and speaking with an authoritative voice in a professional way that also aligns with the Social Work’s  Professional Standards. 

Students didn’t understand the importance of what being a ‘Chair’ of a meeting meant and felt unable to speak to senior members of the University. We did a lot of work to support their preparation including talking about their concerns and rehearsing the agenda so they were clear about what parts of the meeting they were responsible for. I ask myself where their feelings of intimidation come from and how we can be more supportive of students to enter formal spaces as student colleagues. This idea about power and being empowered is central to what we do in social work. So, part of preparing to Co-Chair is talking about how best to communicate clearly and phrase certain questions, how to introduce people and how to move a conversation on to the next agenda item. Students are now embodying positive engagement, and feel more confident.

How did students react to any of those processes? (positive, negative, did it go smoothly etc?)

I get to know my Student Reps really well, and with that, I get to know their strengths and insecurities too. The more students open up, the more they gain confidence. Helping students find their voice and work on their communication skills can be great for their CV. Involvement in Course Committee Meetings (CCM) can help students develop employability skills and prepare them for future interviews. Students who co-chair quickly recognise this.

Students who’ve been involved in the CCMs are now so confident, they are leading the meetings and organising the agenda, and I can take a step back. For example, students wanted to change the standard agenda template to make it more relevant to them and what they would find beneficial. Students wanted the Heads of Student Experience, Student Union Officers, Head of  School Office, academic mentors and librarians to be there. They wanted staff to prepare a report to present to students. So, rather than staff sitting passively in the meeting, waiting for students to ask questions, they would be active participants telling the students what the key issues are in their areas and what they are doing to improve student experience. That generates a lot of questions and has been really successful - and it was all initiated by students!

Students have changed the whole format of our CCMs, making it more authentic, genuine and interesting. It is a really exciting initiative.

What was the outcome of that process? And what did you learn?

Students feel more confident and empowered to speak out! They feel more able to talk about their concerns as well as their successes, because they know staff are genuinely interested in their journey and progression through the course. Students co-edit the termly Social Work publication ‘The Loop’ with myself. They are developing skills in using their authoritative voice to approach the senior leadership of the university to confidently say ‘I am the co-editor of The Loop publication, working with Donna Jones and I’d like to include your perspectives in the next edition. Can we schedule an interview?’

A student interviewed the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor and I told them to not feel intimidated by her title as they have the right as a student to ask questions. They have gone on to interview so many more people and it has resulted in a really interesting and vibrant publication showcasing the voice of students and highlighting their perspectives and areas of interest.

We get together for editorial meetings to review the work. We work together but students decide what happens next! I am giving students licence to challenge me on all sorts of things and we enter into this kind of collegial conversation rather than them seeing me as the ‘Head of Social Work’ and seeing themselves as “just students”. We are going a long way to change the power dynamics and boost confidence. Oh, and we have fun too!

What would be your number one piece of advice for someone wanting to embed more partnership working with students?

It’s essential to have students on board as partners. Working alongside students transforms the whole teaching and learning experience. Student voice isn’t something to be avoided, but something to be welcomed, listened to and continually developed. We (staff) are not above reflecting on our own teaching practices in order to improve what we do. I believe that student voices who are critical of aspects of their courses or their learning experience should not be viewed negatively or defensively, but taken as important feedback to help improve the course and their experience of the course.

I think it’s worth repeating - it’s essential to work alongside students as partners because it is an opportunity to transform our own, sometimes entrenched ways of thinking about things, and thus transform our courses. I would encourage all colleagues to begin the process with their students. They may surprise you!