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Democracy is more than talk

Kirsten Sellars looks at two schools where students' opinions have influenced everyday life

Which sport do girls wish to see added to the PE curriculum? And which subject do sixth-formers think should be more challenging? The answers are, respectively, rugby and PSHE. We know this because a recent survey of pupils, The Voice of the Learner at the Heart of the System, conducted in two partner schools in Wolverhampton, tells us so.

During the study, students at St Peter's Collegiate School and The King's School were asked about most aspects of their school life, as the first step towards their participation in future school improvement plans - and thus far, their response has been positive. As Stephanie Loftus of Year 9 at St Peter's says, it makes students "feel part of what's going on".

The 1998 Crick report on citizenship in education stressed that schools should "value, listen to and involve pupils", and that school councils could offer valuable experience of democratic processes. Keith Sedgebeer, co-ordinator of the Lichfield Foundation (which oversees the schools' partnership) initiated the survey to amplify the voices of students within school affairs.

"Both schools have willingly recognised that pupils have a right to be heard when shaping the improvement agenda," he says. "Pupils have learned that they have rights and, with them, responsibilities. For example, when they were asked about the quality of teaching I was impressed that not a single group, from Year 7 to Year 13, took pot shots at individual teachers. They took the matter seriously."

At St Peter's Collegiate School - a popular voluntary-aided C of E technology college, recently selected as a leading edge school - more than nine out of 10 pupils agreed with the survey statement: "This is a good school to be at."

Despite this overall satisfaction, one aspect of life there - the role of school councils - attracted some criticism. Keith Sedgebeer acknowledges that while lower school council meetings were well attended and lively, some matters, such as lack of shelter when queuing for food, could not be resolved because of budget restrictions. Older students, on the other hand, tended to be more cynical about the upper school council, seeing it as window dressing.

St Peter's principal, Huw Bishop, recognised the problem and decided to up the ante. "Traditionally, councils are the place to moan about the uniform and school lunches," he says. "I wanted to use the survey to encourage students to think about broader issues within the school."

He attended both councils to present the results. Not only did each meeting attract a full house, but the pupils listened attentively to what he was saying: "I challenged them to engage constructively in important decision-making processes regarding the school's development, and they enjoyed the feeling that they could make a difference."

Students are enthusiastic about these changes. "I feel privileged that the school council reps are given so much authority. It gives the students a bigger voice," says David Grant, of Year 10.

Philip Jones, of the same year, adds: "I don't really think there's that much wrong with the school - over 90 per cent are happy." He saw the uniform - that school council staple - as a non-issue.

Tim Gallagher, principal of The King's School, is equally keen on the survey. King's is a voluntary-aided arts college that was launched as a Fresh Start school in 1998 when the former school at the site failed to meet basic standards. Six years into the new regime, academic standards have greatly improved, and now almost match the national average for good GCSEs. Furthermore, the survey shows that students appreciate the improvement, with around nine out of 10 agreeing with the statement "I am taught well".

"To get such a positive response is a pleasure," says Tim Gallagher. "It's a recognition of our hard work."

One democratic lesson is that councils are not a panacea, and students like Rosheen Singh of Year 12 understand that life is a two-way street. "We sit there and say 'we want this' on issues like school cleanliness and cafeteria prices, but it's up to us as well," she reasons. "We can't just leave it to the teachers." Santosh Manoharan, of the same year, concurs:

"It can be demotivating when we make suggestions and nothing happens. But the fault lies with us as well."

Tim Gallagher acknowledges the limits of schools democracy, but strives to make the process as inclusive and transparent as possible. ("It's imperative to listen to them - and give them credence, not just go our own way. We have to act upon it, and if we can't or don't wish to, we've got to explain why.") He is keen to beef up the school council and is considering giving the sixth-form a budget.

Keith Sedgebeer is adamant that the momentum should not stop with the survey. "Both schools are determined that the outcomes will influence future school improvement planning," he says. "The governing bodies are required to give progress reports every term, and both schools are keen to learn from each other. They have already involved the school councils, so they've got an early signal that they are part of the process."

One thing is for certain, he insists: when it comes to democracy in school, the students are up for it.

Do you agree I?

At each school all students were asked to fill in a questionnaire that asked whether, and how strongly, they agreed or disagreed with statements about the school, such as:

* Teachers expect me to work hard and do my best.

* Pupils in this school behave well.

* There is an adult in this school that I can talk to if I have a problem.

* I feel trusted to do things on my own.

* The school is interested in the views of its pupils.

The results were collated and analysed according to key stage, gender and ethnicity. Thereafter, some of the students were interviewed in depth about their attitudes to school life. Questions included:

* What subjects do you find boring?

* What happens if you do something really well?

* What sort of things are you given responsibility for?

The survey was devised by Lichfield Foundation's co-ordinator Keith Sedgebeer in consultation with the two schools, and conducted in November 2003. Since then he has been invited to conduct surveys elsewhere and has just completed one at Pendeford High School, Wolverhampton.

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