If we listened to pupils, we might learn something

20th February 2015 at 00:00

Are pupil councils a waste of time? Are they anything more than a contrivance, allowing schools to present themselves as enlightened and democratic without really changing a rigidly hierarchical system?

A new report (see pages 16-18) sets out to explore whether attempts to devolve power to pupils amount to very much. It makes for fascinating reading, with some surprising findings.

The University of Stirling study of seven schools, set up by children's commissioner Tam Baillie, provides some manna for cynics: it finds that pupil councils and other attempts to involve students often leave a lot to be desired. "We just go and say stuff - usually it never happens," says one teenager.

But when pupils are truly involved in running their schools, the results can be profoundly empowering - as they were in one where, after a reasoned debate, students chose what uniform to wear despite their headteacher's opposition.

You wonder how often young people are asked for their views on education cuts. Two such controversies - about teacher numbers and the length of the school week - escalated this week.

Cosla presented evidence to show that teacher numbers apparently have no bearing on how well pupils do at school (see pages 6-7). The local authorities body even suggested that the Scottish government might be acting illegally in preventing councils from trimming the profession's rank and file.

Meanwhile, Falkirk Council became the first authority to press ahead with plans to reduce the length of the pupil week, despite a furious reaction from parents. School leaders' body AHDS has also found itself at the centre of controversy by daring to argue that although shorter weeks are not something it would advocate at other times, extreme financial pressure on councils might demand pragmatic acceptance of such a move.

One of the abiding lessons of the Scottish independence referendum was that you underestimate teenagers at your peril. George Galloway made mincemeat of the US Senate a few years ago, but when he addressed an audience of sceptical and eloquent blazer-clad pupils in a televised debate in September, his polemic was doused.

Which leads to a serious point: councils are going to have to make some unpopular choices about where to find education savings in the years ahead, so why isn't more being done to ask what the students think? As one put it: "We're more aware of the problems in the school than the teachers. They can't see it from a pupil point of view."

The University of Stirling researchers suggest, however, that many young people still accept a "subordinate" position to adults and are only tokenistically involved in power sharing.

That needs to be fixed - now more than ever. As councils start buckling under the pressure to make education cuts, pupils need to be heard.


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