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Advance of the allies

Preview of the National Exhibition and Conference, Cardiff International Arena, May 27-28

Peter Clarke, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, says schools and colleges should make greater efforts to bring pupils into the decision-making process - and then enjoy the benefits

This year's conference and exhibition comes at a time when education is once again at the forefront of everyone's consciousness. Whether it concerns testing or inspection, classroom assistants or A-level grades, we find ourselves involved in animated debate about educational issues.

As someone whose primary responsibility is "the promotion and safeguarding of children's rights and welfare", I spend much of my time listening to children and teachers talking about our schools.

These conversations take place in a broad social context that has seen fundamental shifts in the relationship between children and adults - and these changes are likely to continue. Adults were once the assumed holders of knowledge, wisdom and power and children were seen as the more or less well-behaved and passive recipients. Today, as any parent or teacher knows, the relationship is much more to do with negotiation, with children and young people being given an increasing say in their lives. I'm not sure that institutions such as schools and colleges have really taken these changes on board. In many significant ways, schools are structured on lines laid down in Victorian times (as were the foundations of many of their buildings).

I welcome the many initiatives that are taking place in Wales to enhance the part children play in decisions within their schools. Schools councils, pupil-governorships and other ideas are beginning to show the way forward.

Where these are introduced with genuine intentions, and a whole-school commitment, they bring great and varied benefits: they help to offset the adult bias in our educational agenda, and bring issues like bullying and the state of school toilets much higher up the list of priorities.

They also give young people real experience of democratic processes, rather than mere lessons about them. I am not surprised that so many of our young people are not engaging in political choice and civic life when they reach voting age: we have failed to offer them real experience of what democracy can do. Giving them genuine opportunities to make decisions will help them develop much-needed skills for their future roles in work and as citizens.

These are challenging times for educational establishments. I believe they will have to evolve structures and processes that take full account of the fact that children and young people are becoming more aware that they have rights, and that many of them wish to exercise more responsibility.

Those who take on the challenge will find that sharing decision-making with young people brings rich rewards and a new creative resource. Young people have most at stake in education: let us make them our allies in efforts to improve it.

At the exhibition

Peter Clarke will conduct the official opening and give a welcoming address on Thursday, May 27 at 11.15am.

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