But ministers stop short of compulsory schools councils for secondaries
MINISTERS ARE backing calls to give pupils more say over how they are taught but have rejected recommendations from their advisers to make school councils compulsory in England.
Two major research reports on school councils published this week praise schemes that see trained pupils observe lessons, providing teachers with feedback so that they can improve their technique.
Lord Adonis, a schools minister, said he strongly supported the two reports and called on schools to learn from the good practice that they highlighted. "I can't think of a good argument against a school council," he said.
But the minister stopped short of saying that school councils should be a statutory requirement in all England's secondaries, as recommended in the London University's Institute of Education report that he commissioned.
"Schools vary hugely across the country," Lord Adonis said. "This diversity means that we do not think it suitable to be prescriptive on how they encourage their pupils' participation to suit their differing needs and circumstances."
Teaching unions which feared legislation would have created more bureaucracy for their members have welcomed his decision. But the institute's research said that 62 per cent of teachers thought England should follow Wales and make school councils compulsory.
It found that 95 per cent of schools in England had introduced them anyway. The report said the councils should be used to give pupils a say in behaviour policies and teaching and learning an area only 12 per cent of pupils were currently involved in.
Birmingham University research, which looked at the work of school councils in eight London secondaries, supported by the charity School Councils UK, drew the same conclusion. It was when councils moved away from the "traditional" concerns of food and social events and into teaching and learning and behaviour that the most progress was made, the report said.
Those were the areas "where students are genuinely participatory in school life in the sense of taking on an adult or even professional role; where the voice and experience is not just 'heard' but acted upon."
At one of the schools studied Preston Manor High in Wembley a team of trained pupils have been observing lessons for the last two years. Sarah Creasey, an English teacher, was one of the first volunteers. She said the process helped her discover that she was not giving pupils as much time to answer questions as she might.
"It is helpful because you are getting the student's perspective," she said. "It opens up a dialogue and makes them appreciate how difficult your job is. It creates a partnership."
The institute's report said the process could refine teacher practice, improve pupil engagement and raise their awareness of the learning process. But earlier this year the NASUWT union said teachers should boycott such schemes. Chris Keates, its general secretary, said they took the concept of student voice "a step too far" and struck at the heart of "what constitutes an appropriate pupil-teacher relationship".
Professor Lynn Davies, author of the Birmingham research, said that if pupils were not treated as professionals, the whole concept of school councils was undermined.
To work, councils also needed to involve all pupils in the school through devolved structures that took in class and years councils and sub-committees. It was also essential that they were allowed to tackle serious issues. "A token school council that only looks at trivia is worse than nothing at all," she said.
The institute's report concludes: "Genuine provision for pupil voice requires some power and influence to be passed to pupils at which point it becomes unpredictable. Where this does not happen, there is the danger that pupil voice, and school councils in particular, could produce a cohort of young people cynical about democratic processes."
* 'School Councils School Improvement', by Lynn Davies and Hiromi Yamashita is at www.schoolcouncils.org
* 'Real Decision Making? School Councils in Action', by Geoff Whitty and Emma Wisby is at www.dcsf.gov.ukresearch