Giving even the youngest children a say in the running of their school can bring major benefits to pupils and teachers alike, reports Fiona Leney
For sceptics, phrases such as "delegated leadership" and "pupil voice" can trigger feelings of unease. Teachers have argued in The TES in recent weeks that giving children a greater say in the running of their school simply does not work.
It is a view contested by advocates, who argue that the antipathy comes from a misunderstanding of the subject, and its misapplication in school.
Effective distributed leadership to pupils can take many forms, for example peer mentoring and circle-time discussions, rather than traditional pupil councils led by teachers and attended by a few hand- picked students. It can result in the selection of buddies and pupil leaders by their peers, and changes proposed and implemented by the pupils themselves.
It can even be as simple as electing classroom "ambassadors" to welcome and look after visitors.
Run successfully, the principle can bring powerful twin benefits to a school. Pupil leaders gain through personal development and self- confidence, while the school ethos is boosted by whole-school democracy, and the development of a culture of mutual respect between learners and teachers, working together for the improvement of the school community.
David Jackson, a senior associate to the Department for Children, Schools and Families' innovation unit, has written extensively on the importance of pupil voice, and the value of delegated leadership. He believes it is vital that pupils are seen to contribute to dialogue, and are entrusted to carry through any agreed changes.
"By allowing young people to act, they start to become embedded as leaders within the school community, and part of the culture of the school itself," says Mr Jackson.
But schools have to be wholehearted about their commitment to pupil involvement.
"There is a real danger of schools taking a tokenist approach," warns Alison Peacock, head of Wroxham School, a primary in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, which under her leadership has gone from special measures to an "outstanding" rating by Ofsted.
She has replaced daily school assembly with circle groups, led by Year 6 pupils, which discuss the issue of the day. This can range from how to manage bringing football cards to school, to organising the summer fun day.
"These are nuts and bolts issues, but what is so powerful is to see how the older children enable the younger ones," says Mrs Peacock.
"The message is of taking responsibility for your actions, and acting out of intrinsic motivation, to do the best for yourself and for your peers, not as part of a boss culture.
"The Year 1s sit back and watch the behaviour of the older children in school and learn, and the teacher in whose classroom the meeting is taking place can see children outside their own year group handling circle time. It enables them to get to know pupils outside their class, too."
The trouble with traditional school councils, according to Mrs Peacock, is that they tend to promote the most articulate and popular children, rather than making time and space for everyone.
Jo Cottrell, head of Halterworth Community Primary, agrees. She came to the school, in Romsey, Hampshire, two and a half years ago from the National College of School Leaders' networked learning team, where she had been working on the issue of distributed leadership in schools.
"Halterworth is high achieving academically, but the agenda was to encourage children and parents to play a more active role in the school," she says.
Mrs Cottrell began by setting up action team-working so that instead of setting policy, the whole staff formed teams, working with governors, parents and pupils to tackle issues such as behavioural policy, sanctions and travel plans.
"We handed the charity action plan to the children to sort out, and they became very keen on supporting local charities and organising events themselves. "It has a dual benefit, to the children and school," she says.
Like Mrs Peacock, Mrs Cottrell believes that much of the benefit to pupils comes from the process itself, rather than the leadership status.
Children on the action teams consult classmates and pupils at other schools to gather information and opinion to report back to their team.
"It's about developing personal skills and becoming real leaders," says Mrs Cottrell.
"Lots of school councils talk about toilets and litter, but children have to see the impact their work is having in order to benefit.
"Issues such as sanction setting can take longer because of this delegated consultation. But because the pupils are more involved, they are inevitably more committed."
Out of the behavioural action team grew a request from pupils for peer mentors. Year 6s have been trained in counselling strategies and how to lead circle time, and there are plans to begin preparing Year 5s for the roles this term.
Mrs Cottrell, Mrs Peacock, and John Norris, assistant head at Hinchingbrooke School, a secondary in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire (above, right), all speak enthusiastically about how pupils rise to the challenge of leading their peers when trusted and supported.
At Halterworth Primary, each class has an ambassador, a child who will stand up and introduce the class to any visitor, and look after them during their visit. So convinced is Mrs Cottrell of the benefit of the role to personal development, that she rotates it among the pupils. If shy children do not volunteer, she will ensure that they are chosen, and then supported.
Mr Jackson says that teachers are wrong to feel threatened by pupil leadership activities, as they too can benefit. "Those staff who work with student groups are actively participating in serious school improvement work," he says. They are also leading (in an enabling way) such teams; and they become aware of what leadership and change means in a complex organisation.
"Put simply, you don't just grow student leaders this way, you also grow staff leaders.
"This could be one of the most significant developments in school improvement of recent years."
DELEGATED LEADERSHIP: WHOLE-SCHOOL APPROACH
- Delegated leadership to pupils can only work as part of a whole-school approach. Impress on pupils that they are choosing leaders for the school community, and working to improve the community.
- Establish democratic structures for staff, pupils and parents, to voice issues and share ideas.
- Listen to pupils. Distributed leadership does not mean that decisions are simply delegated to them, but they should be given a voice and their suggestions should be considered seriously.
- Provide systematic professional development for staff to enable them to be open to student leadership.
- Provide suitable training and support for pupils, too. Do not expect children to be able to think as adults, but their contributions are still worthwhile. Equally, it is unfair to expect them to take full responsibility for something they have not been trained to cope with.
- Recognise and celebrate achievement.
Apprentices in winning votes
Hinchingbrooke School is, at first sight, about as traditional an educational establishment as it is possible to find. The large comprehensive, housed in a Tudor country mansion in Cambridgeshire that was once Oliver Cromwell's family home, has a tradition of sports representatives, senior students and head boys and girls.
Over the past five years, however, the school has hit upon an imaginative way to update the old system so that it serves the needs of modern pupils and improves the whole school ethos, but still remains true to the heritage of the school.
The selection of head boy and head girl has become a key plank in the school's practice of distributed leadership and pupil voice. Candidates put themselves through a demanding two-week electioneering process, involving presentations to peers, interviews with senior management, and undertaking a task for the school in a process which they liken to television's The Apprentice.
"The school provides the framework, but the student voice informs the final result," says John Norris, the assistant head in charge of the sixth form.
"The value is not just the actual election, but the benefits the process brings to everyone - the candidates, their peers, and the whole school."
In the final part of the assessment, the four shortlisted pupils are split into mixed pairs to accomplish their task. Last year it was to organise a Christmas party and raise money. This year's candidates were asked to decide how to spend the pound;500 that was raised.
"The questions are how well do they work together, how creative are they, who do they think of consulting and how?" says Mr Norris.
He believes that the process of consulting their peers and presenting their findings back to them is invaluable preparation for the world beyond school. "We've grabbed quite a traditional concept and taken it forwards," says Mr Norris.