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Counsel of perfection

Nicholas Pyke visits a school where students take part in running their own affairs

School councils are a well-established part of educational life by now. Even so, there can be few places like Impington Village College where the elected pupil representatives are trying to improve their lot by calling for tougher language teaching. Much tougher.

While pupil councils elsewhere busy themselves with plans for better bike sheds or an annual disco, at Impington a group of students is proposing that standard sections of the timetable - eg maths or geography - be taught in French, German or Spanish, the sort of tactic used in more language-savvy schools abroad.

This comprehensive, on the northern fringe of Cambridge, has distinct advantages when it comes to European understanding, not least because the sixth-form has an international intake and more than 30 nationalities on roll. Another factor is its commitment to teaching citizenship. The school is at the forefront of development in the subject.

One of the sixth formers, 17-year-old Yasmin Bensaud, has just returned from a trip to Italy, representing the school at a European youth parliament. There, in the Umbrian town of Orvieto, she discussed plans for closer European working in a programme which included a grilling from the Italian deputy prime minister.

Impington's example is being closely watched as it is taking part in a pilot scheme to help introduce the active citizenship element of the subject causing most concern to schools.

Run by the Somerset-based Changemakers charity, the scheme covers 18 schools in the Peterborough and Cambridge area. A parallel experiment with the same aims is under the wing of the Education Extra group.

Even Impington with all its experience has found the Active Citizenship in Schools project a significant help, not least because it brings some extra staffing. Its foreign links are eye-catching, but the basis of the school's programme, which has been running for five years, is more local.

Collaboration with parish councillors, regular visitors at the school, has become one of the building blocks, enabling pupils to bring about changes.

These include sheltered seating in the middle of Impington village and a new youth club. Pupils are now thinking of ways to improve transport in the area.

The school also has a strong pupil council which regularly meets the senior management team and runs a series of working groups and projects. These groups, run by the pupils themselves, cover areas such as recycling, fund-raising and equal opportunities. There is one group for building and maintaining an eco-friendly garden at the school and another for running a small development bank, set up to fund youthorientated projects in the school or village.

They take their work seriously. Take recycling, for example. Impington has built storage tanks for large quantities of paper and agreed collection arrangements with the district council.

Even the garden is serious. The pupils had an unusually direct experience of wildlife politics when a greater crested newt was found in the new school garden and the authorities intervened to relocate it before work could proceed.

The scale and variety of these projects have benefited greatly from Changemakers, says Anita Porter, an advanced skills teacher at Impington.

In particular, schools taking part in the scheme have been given the services of a part-time assistant or youth worker.

Changemakers has been heavily involved in helping schools plan citizenship programmes, making the most, for example, of community activities already running. It has sponsored training conferences and helped ensure that good ideas from one school can be adopted by others. Sally Stenton, a programme manager with the group, has found a great variety in the approaches taken.

At Sawtry Community College, for example, the school has chosen to base its efforts on the new citizenship lessons themselves. "They started with asking how they were going to deliver citizenship education, and decided to make active citizenship central to that. They are looking at how they can build it in as an entitlement for all in their school."

Impington, on the other hand, already had a strong democratic ethos and started from there. At another school, curriculum time is set aside for planning, but the actual citizenship projects are conducted in the students' own time.

So far, she says, the signs are encouraging. The key elements in success, she says, are commitment and enthusiasm from schools, and a willingness to make time and money available for training. "What we have been able to demonstrate is that there are ways of building forms of citizenship that engage and enthuse young people and that can be done in ways that suit each individual school. Rather than imposing a scheme, we offer a flexible framework."

This view is endorsed by Impington's Anita Porter: "The students are getting a good grasp of what citizenship is about, and see where it is taking them."

Active Citizenship in Schools

* ACiS began in the summer term 2002 and involves KS3-4 in 18 schools, including two special schools. It will be completed in September 2004.

* Each school develops its own action plan and has the assistance of a support worker for 30 days equivalent over two years.

* The basis of the programme is a certificate or award for 25 or 50 hours of voluntary action. It also provides pound;300 a year Venture Funding which some schools have begun to develop as a "Youth Bank in School". This involves young people acting as grant givers to other young people to apply for grants or loans to run their own

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