Let pupil power reign

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Secondary school student councils need to be more independent, writes Kate Wolstenholme

It is lunchtime. The agenda has been handed out, the secretary has opened his file and the chairwoman begins by outlining the outcomes of her last meeting with the headteacher.

As the meeting progresses it becomes apparent that the new, healthy tuck shop and the playground monitors' rota have been successfully implemented.

A survey undertaken by each representative is collated, ready to be shown to the head.

This is a school council working at its best - completely student-led, making a positive impact on the life of the school, and developing the participation skills that the Assembly government is so keen to promote.

However, this council is not in a high-flying secondary school but in a rural primary in Powys. In secondaries, it is commonly the link teacher who features as the council's chairperson, secretary, treasurer and campaigns manager. Meetings are held in a classroom format with teachers asking students to raise their hands if they wish to speak.

Issues are raised effectively and the student voice is being listened to, but the pupils are not asked to take responsibility for that voice.

Special schools catering for secondary-age pupils, like primaries, can also have effective school councils. There can be issues surrounding official minute writing, but meetings can be tape-recorded or a member of the support staff can help the secretary.

The development of Fairtrade cafes, sensory gardens and a number of school events shows that effective participation is more than possible in a special-needs secondary environment.

So why is there a gap in mainstream secondary participation, when they should be building upon pupils' primary successes?

Secondary schools do not have the same mechanisms for participation that primary schools do. Weekly circle time sessions, the norm in primaries, provide both the necessary skills and initial forum for student participation. The rules created in and for circle time, regarding listening to each other and respecting each other's opinions, are easily transferable into a structured meeting.

Without this frequent gauge of opinion, though, secondary schools are unsure about the type of issues children might raise. Furthermore, curriculum demands in secondary schools mean that timetabling the training and meetings for secondary students is much more of a logistical problem.

Meetings are crammed into lunchtimes and run more quickly when the teacher takes control. With extra homework demands on pupils, writing up minutes becomes a burden rather than a privilege, and again "to save time" the link teacher will take over.

Students who are used to good primary school councils become disenchanted with participation once they realise how differently the secondary councils run. What can be done to bridge this gap in participation?

Some secondary schools are addressing the problem through their work on transition. Students in Years 5-8 from all the cluster primary schools and the secondary school are forming their own council to put together a transition programme. This enables primaries to showcase and share good practice while addressing the transition issue.

The introduction of transitional school councils has also encouraged the reinstating of circle time in Y7 and Y8, with positive results. Pupils also need to feel that they have the necessary skills for participation. In some cases, this means going back to basics (and the key stage 1 and 2 objectives of the personal and social education framework for Wales) and addressing skills such as:

* listening and responding to others;

* expressing your own views confidently and taking part in a debate;

* developing decision-making skills;

* working co-operatively to tackle problems. Such skills are only maintained if students are given the opportunities to practise them.

In the behavioural and secure units I have worked with, it is often these skills that are missing. Yet with a little refocusing of attention, they are re-emphasised and students begin to work together much better.

For the participation strategy to be successful, the gap between primary and secondary schools must be addressed and altered. We must not lose the skills developed in primary to the threat of apathy in the secondary setting.

Effective school councils not only improve the environment but also behaviour, and develop a willingness to take responsibility for decisions that are made about, and for, pupils. Providing them with a sense of shared responsibility encourages the same attitudes outside the school gates.

If we allow our children to take on responsibility, rather than labelling them as criminals and layabouts, then we will improve their behaviour and the shared respect between adults and children in our society.

Kate Wolstenholme is an assistant education officer for the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru. She has been researching school councils in Wales

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