Early voice for the responsible citizen

Between the ages of 11 and 16, and often for longer, school lies at the centre of young people's lives. It shapes who we see, who we can talk to, who we can sit next to, what we must wear, how we interact with other people and how we can express ourselves.

Some aspects of school life involve basic human rights that every adult in a democracy believes they should have the right to determine for themselves, within the law. Yet, school students, for the most part, are not only denied the right to determine many of their basic actions, but are not even given the opportunity to comment on them or suggest constructive changes. They live under a heavily policed dictatorship. Then, at the age of 18, they are suddenly expected to vote and behave like responsible citizens.

You may be wondering why I care, and thinking that, as a 19-year-old first-year undergraduate at Oxford, I have done very well out of the secondary education system. True as that may be, I feel that my success stemmed from the opportunities I was given by inspirational teachers, who recognised my pro-active nature and gave me the opportunities to take positions of responsibility in school life.

Those less vocal or confident are often overlooked and are not given the same opportunities to have their say and develop their skills as leaders.

It is for that reason that I, with the help of other students aged 11-19, began work during my A-levels to establish the English Secondary Students'

Association (ESSA), to ensure that students begin to have a say in all aspects of the educational system that controls their daily lives - and get a practical grounding in democratic participation at the same time.

The groundwork for ESSA began in November 2003, and it is now ready to be officially launched at a national student conference on February 4 at the TUC in London. ESSA aims to provide training, guidance and advice to empower students. The aim is to ensure that everyone at least has the option and confidence to participate. Whether they decide to do so is up to them.

The introduction of the citizenship curriculum was a good first step in focusing students' attention on the joint benefits and responsibilities that come with being members of a wider society. But there are too few schools where students really get an opportunity to put democracy into practice.

Some schools make a genuine effort by encouraging the operation of an effective school council or by introducing an associate student governor.

Others have gone much further by inviting students on to staff interview panels, engaging in well-structured student-teacher feedback sessions or creating school or year group meetings where every student can have their say. But these examples are the exception.

Over the past couple of years central government has also made an effort to give students the opportunity to have their say in relation to some of its policies. Groups of young people have been consulted on various recent papers and initiatives, including the Tomlinson 14-19 review and the Department for Education and Skills' guidance paper, Working Together: Giving Children and Young People a Say.

But what effect has that paper really had? Are we "working together" and "giving children and young people a say?" I would argue that we are not.

Students are rarely given a chance to express their views. Secondary students have extensive experience of judging the quality of teaching styles and the content of lessons; at secondary school I encountered at least 62 different teachers - but not once was I asked to comment on their practice. If we are serious about giving young people a say, why don't we start in the classroom?

Consulting students can help schools to perform better. It also develops good citizens. Every day on the news we hear about the importance of encouraging democracy. But it takes time to learn about the responsibilities that come with exercising rights. Democracy takes practice.

Rajeeb Dey is reading economics and management at Jesus college, Oxford. He is founder of the English Secondary Students' Association.


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