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'I never had a voice before in my life'

James Collins grew up in boarding and military schools where he felt he had no freedom, writes Joseph Lee.

Now elected as the first full-time salaried student union president at Chichester College, the 19-year-old says the freedom and responsibility given to students there turned his life around. That has included taking part in lesson observations and giving his feedback on lecturers' teaching.

James said that when he first arrived at the college, he hid away in his halls of residence because he did not realise he was free to go elsewhere. "Chichester was really important to me," he said. "They gave me the chance to speak my mind.

"I had never had a voice before in my life. It was always, `Yes, sir', and never question an order. It was nice to be given the freedom and the chance to put forward some of my ideas. Now I won't stop until everything is right."

James observed a lesson for students with severe learning difficulties and found it eye-opening.

"I wouldn't say I've had a sheltered life, but I'd had no experience of this," he said. "It was amazing to see the way the teachers really got involved with the students."

He conceded that it was hard to rate the teaching when he was unfamiliar with the issues involved in educating people with special needs. "But now I've got a benchmark to work towards," he said.

"Getting students involved in the lesson observation was just a natural step from everything else. It just made sense. It wasn't like it was a big new idea to us."

Among earlier changes instituted by the student union was translating the college's teaching policy into easily understood language a five-point plan entitled "Has the Penny Dropped?" so that students could check their lessons against the official standards.

James said: "There are a couple of teachers who see the student union as diehard Greenpeace activists, but there is a lot of trust between the union and the senior management team at the college.

"There are thousands of students who can't be bothered," he said. "But it's nice to give them the opportunity and say, `Take it or leave it.'"

There are only 23 paid student union officers in colleges, in contrast to universities, where salaried union officials are common.

After his year as president, James hopes to move to Canada to become a writer or to work in public relations or sales. He does not want to go to university.

He said: "I can put the work in and be as driven as university graduates are."

Photograph: Neil Turner

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