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Plugging into pupil power

English secondary pupils now have a national voice, thanks to the efforts of a 19-year-old student. Stephen Lucas reports.

Rajeeb Dey is what you might call a multi-tasker. Between securing a clutch of top-grade A-levels and buckling down to studies at Oxford university, the 19-year-old has founded a national union for secondary pupils.

Rajeeb launched the English Secondary Students' Association (Essa) this month after discovering that England was one of a handful of European countries without such an organisation. He was also frustrated that school councils, including his own at King Edward VI grammar in Chelmsford, gave pupils only a superficial say in how their schools were run.

"I didn't join my school council because I was not sure how effective it was," he said. "It is a generic problem. They are too focused on approving designs for courtyards that have already been designed. Pupils can't discuss deeper curriculum issues and influence how they are taught."

Rajeeb hopes his union for 11 to 19-year-olds will tackle the problem.

Essa already has plans to talk to the teaching unions about drugs counselling as opposed to random drugs tests and what students think about the new 14 to 19 curriculum.

It is has been endorsed by the Trades Union Congress, teacher unions and Stephen Twigg, school standards minister. This month 120 students and 80 adults travelled to London for the association's inaugural conference at the TUC's Congress Centre.

As well as being the association's founder, Rajeeb is its national co-ordinator. There will be elections at the end of March for an 18-member council.

"I enjoyed school because I was given responsibilities like being a prefect," he said. "I had a good relationship with teachers and there was mutual trust.

"I want other students to have the same opportunities because it makes school enjoyable. School was not something I had to endure."

In 2003, Rajeeb pitched his idea for the association to the Phoenix Education Trust, a national charity that promotes education in which children participate in decision-making. It gave seed money Essa's startup and continues to provide it with administrative support.

Most European states have secondary pupil organisations, with the exception of Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Russia and Poland. In the United Kingdom,JScotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all without a secondary students' union.

"The trust had been waiting for a pupil to come forward who wanted to start an organisation because it believes in things being student-led," said Rajeeb. "Students had come forward in the past but the problem was that they got older, left school and the relevance got lost, so they didn't follow it through.

"I thought it was a big shame that this was happening. Just because I have left school and joined the National Union of Students, it doesn't mean others can't benefit from a secondary school students' union."

As he was entering the upper sixth, Rajeeb won a pound;5,000 grant from UnLtd, a foundation for social entrepreneurs, to set up Essa in November 2003. "I felt like I had a responsibility to see it through after I got the grant," he said.

Essa's founder estimates he spent 35 hours a week promoting the idea of the association to sponsors and organisations and answering correspondence.

Despite that workload, Rajeeb, from Upminster, Essex, got four A-grade A-levels and an A-grade AS level. He is now studying economics and management at Jesus college, Oxford.

"My family's support has been crucial," he said. "Without them I would not have been able to juggle everything. When doing my A-levels, I was left to my own devices. I didn't have to do as much housework. Usually I do my share."

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