THERE is a growing body of evidence that school councils contribute to making schools safer places. They can also help raise students' self-esteem and academic performance.
Professor Lynn Davies at the University of Birmingham has examined the link between schools with effective school councils and lower rates of exclusion. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have shown a connection between the decline in students' motivation after their first year in secondary school and their schools' willingness to listen to their views and give them responsibilities.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children believes that school councils which encourage children and young people to participate more fully in their schools will also help them to become more resilient and, ultimately, better protected. It is part of our strategy to work with schools that want to develop effective councils.
There has, however, been only limited research into what teachers and students think about the concept of school councils. With the support of School Council UK and the Advisory Centre for Education, we surveyed a random sample of 600 state secondary and 200 state primary schools. Overall, 49 per cent of secondary schools and 44 per cent of primaries responded.
More than four in five of the secondary schools that responded had councils. As expected, the ratio was rather different in the primary sector. Only one in five of the primaries had councils but others were using alternative means, such as circle time, to obtain pupils' views.
The main advantages identified by staff and secondary students in schools with councils were that they gave young people a voice and a role in the management of their schools, provided a link between staff and students, and enabled students of different ages to work together. Young people were more optimistic about the potential of these bodies to improve relationships between students (73 per cent) than between students and staff (50 per cent).
In only half the schools with councils did teachers identify any actual or potential disadvantages. The two most frequently mentioned were the lack of time for more effective development and staff participation.
A similar proportion of students reported disadvantages. Some complained about inadequate funding and the tendency, in some schools, to disregard council decisions without adequate consideration.
Many schools wanted to see their councils flourish but teachers thought this would happen only if students helped to publicise councils' activities across the school community. Young people also recognised the importance of raising the profile of councils, and ensuring that students helped to develop anti-bullying and discipline policies. Both groups identified the importance of training, particularly for students, if they were to work as effective partners on councils.
Only a minority of respondents opposed the introduction of a council. Some primary teachers felt that they did not have the time to become involved in councils but few argued that their pupils would be too young to participate effectively. The limited opposition from secondary staff came from those who believed that students were incapable of adopting a sufficiently wide perspective.
Although further research is needed to tease out the complex reasons why schools with a higher level of student involvement are regarded as safer communities, the connection can no longer be ignored.
Britain is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises children's right to express their views on all matters which affect them. But this has rarely been translated into education, the one area affecting the majority of children. We are almost alone in Europe in not having any organisation for school students.
While there may be some reservations, it is evident that many, if not most, schools want to have an effective school council and some are coming to see it as essential. As a senior teacher in a school without a council told us: "We expect students to take our rules, our rationale and swallow them lock, stock and barrel without attempting to involve them in what we are doing. The world has moved on and we have to catch up."
Mary Baginsky is senior research officer, NSPCC. School Councils: The Views of Students and Teachers by Mary Baginsky and Derry Hannam will be available next week, priced pound;15, from the NSPCC Publications and Information Unit. Tel: 020 7825 2775 (0171 825 2775) or email: email@example.com