Dedicated to democracy

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Ashley School's council guarantees that pupils' voices are heard, says Elaine Williams

As the House of Commons drives the business of the nation, so the student council drives the business of Ashley School.

Its central significance is evident throughout the school and woven into the fabric of its ethos. A mace with velvet trimmings sits in the middle of Ashley's council chamber, a symbol of the authority of the pupil voice - it is paraded around and, like Black Rod, a pupil knocks at the chamber door at the beginning of every council session; a sculpture of a globe supported by a pyramid stands as a sign of Ashley's commitment to the global community.

The chamber is purpose built and fully adapted for disabilities - a plasma screen records debates as a council clerk types verbatim into a computer terminal for the hearing impaired; the magnificent council table is adjustable for wheelchair users. A green upholstered chair stands out among the prevailing red arranged around the table. Symbolic of the Commons'

authority, it is reserved solely for pupils - no adult may sit in it.

For Bob Windsor, the school's deputy head who is responsible for the creation and running of the council, pupils' having a voice and being listened to lie at the heart of education. He has been at Ashley, an 11-16 community special school in Widnes, Liverpool for pupils with moderate learning difficulties, for the past 28 years and has been determined from the start that children with special needs should not be isolated or limited in their right to be citizens.

He says: "In the '80s, the only access these children had to their community, both in and outside school, was through their class teacher. To me that is abhorrent. Citizenship is about listening to children and at this school we do listen. It gives them a sense of worth and belonging.

Citizenship motivates them to want to be part of something, not just passive learners. How can you teach if there is no dialogue between children and teacher?"

Students at Ashley certainly take their role in the running of their school and involvement in the wider community extremely seriously; their sense of purpose driven by the democratic processes well established in the school's daily life. Tuesday has special significance as the hub of the week - the day when form councils and full council meet to thrash out the week's affairs.

Form councils meet first thing with their school council representative who feeds back council news and then takes their concerns forward on to the next full council meeting, which follows later that morning. School council members then spend time in the chamber up until morning break preparing an agenda from form council concerns and then hold the meeting after break.

Laura Kavanagh, the 15-year-old school council chair and her vice-chair James Kearns, 14, show real leadership and listening skills as the council wades through a hefty agenda: should Friday activities be reinstated?; should a vending machine be introduced, and if so, how will access to it be managed?; how can pupils be stopped from running during fire drills?; should the school name be changed to Ashley High - it sounds so much more mainstream?; is 17-year-old Rory Turnbull, a candidate for the Halton youth parliament (the school's district), of a suitable calibre? Will he represent their interests?

Some members are concerned that a skate park they had played a part in securing for the area, has been built in a site where vandals and "smackheads" rule the roost. Another letter to Derek Twigg, the local MP, is probably on the cards. Each item is discussed with obvious interest, but also with due process. Bob believes passionately that through these processes pupils learn to express themselves in a way that helps to secure them a responsible role in society.

James Kearns agrees. He says: "It brings students together and teaches us to voice our opinions properly. We get to speak to lots of different people and put our points across."

Without his involvement in the council, Bob believes the school would have "lost" James, who has emotional and behavioural difficulties, long ago.

On Tuesday, in the afternoon, it is the turn of the smoking committee, chaired by 13-year-old Joel Sweeney, himself a smoker. Tanya Culleton, who is hearing impaired, but is supported by the council chamber's "loop"

system, has joined the committee because she is passionate about stopping people smoking in school: "My dad smokes and I hate it, and I want to make it stop here as well."

The committee is discussing a lack of fairness in the smoking policy:

"We're looking at why it's all right for the staff to smoke in school, but the kids have to go outside," says Joel.

However, already the committee has given rewards to three teachers who have kicked the habit. Bob is convinced that smoking will never be stopped through punishment, but by "the desire of the kids to work out for themselves that they have to stop".

When Education Secretary Ruth Kelly recommended that schools have a "cool-down" room, Ashley pupils' reaction was that schools wouldn't need one if pupils were listened to, and that instead every school should have a dedicated school council chamber such as theirs.

Ashley was the only special school to receive a special mention when former Education Secretary David Blunkett launched citizenship education in 2002.

It is also named by School Councils UK as the driving force and inspiration behind its manual "School councils for all: including disabled pupils and pupils with special educational needs".

Nearly half of the pupils in the 124- strong school are members of committees and each committee has formal and agreed procedures, a spokesperson and a budget. The school's charter was established with the help of educational charity The Anne Frank Trust, and the Anne Frank committee plays a major role in matters of "tolerance and democracy", anti-bullying, supporting emotional well-being.

There is also a health and safety committee with a website (, a curriculum committee and an "eco" committee, among others, which is very active in protecting the local environment. The school holds mock elections with a polling booth and manifestoes to give students real experience of democracy. Pupils also routinely comment on curriculum issues and teaching quality. There have been 30 visits to Westminster, one to Brussels and there is an annual trip to Anne Frank's house.

Ofsted has praised the school for giving pupils "outstanding opportunities to influence its work and development".

Ashley School uses assertive discipline to promote good behaviour in the school, but in the council chamber there are no reward systems. "The kids come out buzzing from meetings," says Bob, "from the intrinsic pleasure of learning, speaking and listening for a purpose."


Starting a council

* Start small, perhaps with an interest group rather than going straight into a school council.

* Don't formalise it too soon - it takes a long time for a child to become a chairperson.

* Staff need to get used to pupils leading discussion.

* Space is important - the school council chamber has to look different even if it means just taking a few minutes to adapt a classroom.

* Only meet if there are specific things to talk about.

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