Democracy for beginners

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Primary pupils are getting ahead in citizenship through their school council, writes Andrew Mourant

The agenda is set; the councillors in place around the table; the meeting brought to order. There is a swimming gala to arrange; ideas for improving the school; and recycling of plastic bottles to be debated.

Without further ado, the 12 members of Whiteshill school council, aged six to 11, get to work. Grace, the secretary, types notes into a laptop as the proceedings unfold. Kieran, the chairman, and Toni, the vice-chair, field contributions from representatives of each year group. Almost everyone has a constructive idea. It is an embodiment of the spirit of the Every Child Matters agenda.

Over the past year, pupils at this primary in Stroud, Gloucestershire, have got used to decision-making. They meet four times a term and are left to get on with it as teacher Nikki Ashworth sits quietly in the room. She intervenes only to close the gathering as "any other business" threatens to overrun.

The fruits of the council are visible throughout. In the playground, there are new litter bins shaped liked giant pencils. The children decided where they should go, telephoned the supplier and did the ordering. They also requested a "buddy bus stop", where anyone on the wrong end of a playtime spat and needing a friendly ear can sit and talk things through with a peer mediator from Year 5 or 6.

Then there is the healthy eating programme. Children, not teachers, elected to banish junk food four days a week and wrote to tell parents. And it is the children who notice the difference a better diet can make. "They're livening up," says Toni.

There is plenty to take to the head, Robert Kempner, from the latest meeting - unanimous votes for a bike-rack, a drinking fountain and a talent show.

They may not get everything they want but all council decisions get serious consideration.

For Mr Kempner, who joined the 100-pupil school in January, giving them a proper voice is about learning citizenship. In November, an orchard will be planted in the village with local varieties of apple and pear. The parish council wants Whiteshill pupils to prune the trees, and in return they will be entitled to free fruit.

"All this has developed enthusiasm for taking corporate responsibility as village citizens," said Mr Kempner.

The council already has an arrangement with the local shop that provides refreshments for meetings. "We get credit, and when it gets to pound;10 I ask for the bill and the school writes a cheque," said Tom, the treasurer.

Consulting children about school matters began before Mr Kempner arrived.

When he came for interview, four children "in quite a formal setting" were part of the interview process, asking questions unfiltered by adults.

But he's taken the culture much further. This extends to adopting ideas he would not himself have chosen, the swimming gala being one of them. "Some children aren't very confident swimmers," he said. "It needs a lot of organisation - filling in booking forms, permission slips, organising the rules and races."

Ms Ashworth is struck by children's maturity in choosing year-group representatives.

"Candidates had to do their own manifestos," she said. "The children didn't pick their friends but went for the most articulate."

School councils have been growing in popularity across Britain, and Wales is about to make them compulsory. But where Whiteshill pupils can see results, not all school councils flourish in this way. They tend to fail if allowed only limited time and scope, and they face being shut down if they try to extend their range. This, says one academic, is an example of "shallow democracy".

Success depends on pupils seeing decision-making as genuine and their power as real. Jane Waters, a tutor in the department of childhood studies at Swansea university, is researching the effectiveness of school councils. Of her three case studies she found best practice in a mixed junior and infants school. There, the council has run for eight years and is overseen with a light touch.

"It's clear the teacher is not steering the session - the children take that responsibility," said Ms Waters, who is due to publish a paper next year. "The data revealed that they were listening and responding to each other. In all three schools, they established structures to encourage development of political literacy."

At Whiteshill, children look forward to carrying on shaping the school. It is among several primaries being asked for ideas which they will present as part of a citizenship exercise at the local district council offices. This bigger picture was not lost on Toni at the meeting. "We need to get out of the box and think what other schools could have as well," she said.

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