Sleepy Beaminster is the last place you would expect to find a school with a students' union. The tiny Dorset town is steeped in tradition, from its mellow 18th century stone houses to its neat shops selling pheasants and Burberrys. But sixth-formers at Beaminster School, an 11 to 18 comprehensive of 630 pupils, are running a thriving union which would put many university students to shame.
Since the first committee was elected last summer, the union has raised around Pounds 1,000 for charity, organised a Rag Week and several school dances, negotiated discounts for sixth-formers at local shops and cinemas, and raised money to improve the facilities in the sixth-form common room.
Headteacher Susan Collard is delighted at their success and believes the union is creating new opportunities for young people. "It sounds silly to talk about rural deprivation when you look at the glorious scenery, but the pupils are deprived when it comes to contact with the outside world," she says. "Any opportunity we can give them to develop independence and individuality is welcome."
Three out of four Beaminster pupils are bussed in from the surrounding countryside, from villages whose place-names are redolent of a Thomas Hardy novel - Melbury Bubb, Toller Porcorum and Netherbury. Buses to the nearest town of any size, Bridport, only run every hour-and-a-half; the last one at 9pm.
"Beaminster, which only has a population of 2,000, is the big life for many of our students," says Mrs Collard.
Sixteen-year-old Dimuna Gething, the union's first president, admits that some of her responsibilities have been fairly daunting. During a recent evening for potential sixth-formers, she stood up in front of 150 parents and told them about sixth-form life, a task usually reserved for staff.
As the new union has received no support from the National Union of Students - it says it's not its policy to deal with schools although it will admit as members sixth-formers from sixth -form colleges - Dimuna has devised election rules and a constitution herself. She's drawn heavily on advice from her brother, Vaughan, an ex-Beaminster pupil who is now president of the students' union at Aberystwyth University, and from friends in other sabbatical union posts.
Inspiring other sixth-formers to share some of the union work can also be a struggle. "You try and be diplomatic but you do persist and show people that things have got to be done," she says.
Motivation is difficult to summon up when you're in the lower sixth, admits Kate Venner, the 17-year-old treasurer who, none the less, has just arranged a sponsored fast for Oxfam involving more than 100 pupils.
"There is a tendency to lie around and wait for A-levels to hit you. I feel I'm a lot more out-going now and do more for other people - I'm sounding really awful now!" she laughs. Kate has negotiated discounts for Beaminster sixth-formers at a local record shop, a bookshop and with the cinema and arts centre in Bridport.
Like any effective union, the Beaminster SU is organising a varied social life for its members, although it faces far more obstacles than university unions. "Only kids' films come to the local cinema and you have to travel to Exeter or Bournemouth to see a famous band," explains Dimuna. The union, which has a Pounds 2 annual subscription, has laid on trips to concerts by using union funds to pay for petrol and cajoling a sixth-form tutor into driving the school minibus.
As well as enjoying themselves, union members also have responsibilities in the school, as they have superseded the old prefect system. They run the school council, garnering ideas from younger pupils and representing their views to the head. They act as classroom helpers in PE and English lessons, and listen to younger children reading.
Dimuna and her contemporaries are critical of the former head boyhead girl system which they say was elitist and ineffectual. "Prefects were working for the staff, not the pupils, and there was very much a 'them and us' feeling. "
Now, she says, senior pupils who have been elected earn the respect of others by working hard at the organisation. The union committee has also taken practical steps to bring staff and sixth-formers together. The sports rep, for instance, has organised staff-pupil matches and the highlight of the Christmas festivities was a joint pantomime, with parts taken by staff and sixth-formers.
Far from seeing the union as a threat, staff are impressed with the pupils' maturity and initiative. "They are responding wonderfully to being given responsibility," says Mrs Collard. Nor is she worried about them becoming too demanding. "We certainly have no fears of sit-ins!" Jason Goddard, one of the sixth-form tutors, thinks the union helps pupils to prepare for university life. "In a rural environment, it's very easy to sit back and let the world go by, but the union gives sixth-formers the chance to use their initiative and develop some independence," he says.
On a practical note, Mr Goddard points out that union experience means sixth-formers have something to write about in their personal statement on the UCAS form.
And the numbers staying on to the sixth form have risen by more than 10 per cent as pupils now realise that they don't have to attend the local FE college to win some independence.
For their part, the sixth-formers are convinced that the union has improved relations between teachers and pupils. "If we have an opinion to express, we are now more likely to be listened to," says Dimuna.
The main challenge now is to recruit enough enthusiastic and hard-working lower sixth-formers to take over next year.