School councils are a great idea, but pupils must feel their views count, writes Adi Bloom
CONSULTING PUPILS excessively about school matters can be counterproductive. And be warned: pupils will feel their opinions are not valued if they are not acted on, researchers at London University have found.
And, while teachers often claim to be consulting all pupils, they are only listening to those from a middle-class background, the researchers at the Institute of Education found. They collated six studies on consulting pupils about their learning. Their report* says: "Schools have changed less over the last 20 years or so than young people's lifestyle and expectations... Consulting pupils can help to bridge the gap."
Pupil councils can develop children's sense of self-worth and of belonging to a school community, the researchers say. And there are advantages for teachers. Consulting pupils can offer a new perspective on school life, along with practical recommendations.
However, many pupils feel alienated if consultation does not lead to action, the researchers say. They recommend clearly advising pupils what is and is not possible and keeping them informed of the results of their suggestions.
Children also quickly tire of be-ing asked for their opinions on matters which are not important to them, and are unlikely to engage with issues that are presented in patronising or inaccessible language.
"The potential for consulting pupils is considerable," the report says, "but can fail to make a real difference because of ingrained habits." For example, some pupils are more articulate than others and are better able to provide rationale for their arguments. But by listening only to the articulate pupils, teachers risk further disenfranchising the rest.
"In socially and ethnically diverse schools, it was the middle class pupils who were more likely to feel listened to. Working class pupils expressed a stronger sense of exclusion from this dialogue," the researchers say, adding that teachers should avoid turning the school council into a pupil elite.
About 94 per cent of English schools have pupil councils. In March, the parliamentary education select committee recommended making them mandatory in all schools, as they are in Wales.
The report recommends that consulting pupils should be built into training courses, as well as the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers. It concluded: "Trust and openness is a precondition of dialogue and action. This requires ... reassurance that ideas will be welcome and not simply accommodated so as not to disturb existing orthodoxy."
*Consulting Pupils About Teaching and Learning