This article has been published in Enabling Education 13
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Title: Learning Disability and Student Voice in England
Author: Ahmed, A, et al
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2009

Learning disability and student voice in England

Shaffia Ahmed, Mark Atherton, Tracey Burns, Frank Lee, Kavita Lunj, Lee Noonan, Lorraine Pugh, Hannah Scott, James Ward and Claudine Willis

This article describes a one-year participatory research project with students who have severe learning disabilities at The Manchester College (of further education1). The project investigated ways of empowering students to research their preferred ways of learning. It involved five students aged 19-25 years and college staff, one of whom is a PhD student at the University of Manchester.

Students, their tutors and support staff shared project responsibilities. Students chaired reflective meetings, interviewed students and staff, filmed and photographed activities, looked after files, reflective journals and portfolios; tutors and support staff facilitated the process. The research methods aimed to encourage self-reflection and group discussion.

Methods Reflection on the process
Observations: Hannah, a tutor, observed the students and noted how they were learning. Hannah adapted her tutor role to that of a tutorresearcher and placed the students at the centre of the inquiry.
Body collages: Students drew around each other on large sheets of paper. They were given a selection of pictures showing different learning activities. They chose images that represented themselves as learners and stuck these on their body drawings. They then presented them to the group. Body collages, portfolios and photo voice were the most accessible activities, and the most effective for getting responses. They enabled students to control the research process, with little or no help from staff

To make the body collage activity easier to understand, the team produced two identical sets of pictures – one with blue borders representing activities students found easy or liked; the other with red borders for dislikes and activities they found difficult.

Portfolios: Students collected examples of their work and pictures throughout the year. These showed them engaged in different college activities that they enjoyed and that showed their strengths.
Photo voice: Photographs were taken around the college relating to learning preferences, the environment and aspirations for the future.
Reflective journal: Students recorded activities they liked doing, using riting and pictures. Staff recorded observations of the students and personal reflections about their own teaching and supportive practice. Students found keeping and remembering to fill in a reflective journal difficult. Staff struggled to find time for critical reflection.
Interviews: Students interviewed each other. Information gathered from the observations and body collages helped with the interviews. Students found some interview questions confusing and so could not answer all of them.
Co-operative meetings: Meetings were held to discuss learning from the
activities; what staff should do to meet individual learning needs and the students’ aims after leaving college. Further action was agreed.
Conversations were open, everyone contributed (through talking, filming, handing out information, etc). Everyone knew what needed to be done.

Actions taken
Many discoveries were made and new things tried out. Here are two examples:

Findings Actions
Frank wanted to learn more about his local community, so that he could live on his own after college. The group visited Frank’s neighbourhood, local shops and leisure facilities and looked at public transport. Staff now work closely with his family and care manager to help him achieve independent living and supported employment.
Initially Lee communicated using hand gestures with limited speech. He said he chose not to speak because he felt he was not listened to. Staff and students agreed to give Lee more time to communicate, and resisted the urge to talk and make decisions for him. Now Lee is more confident, contributes to discussions and argues his points of view.

For more information please contact:
Hannah Scott c/o Lorraine Pugh,
The Manchester College,
Nicholls Campus,
Hyde Road,
Manchester M12 6BA,

1 Further education means any learning that occurs after compulsory secondary education, but excludes university education, which is known as higher education.