Heads who pay their school councils more than lip-service can be rewarded with invaluable insights, reports Martin Whittaker
If you go for a job at Lark Rise lower school, you're likely to find yourself confronted by eight-year-olds brandishing clipboards. Not only do members of the school council take part in the interview process, they also observe, take notes and give feedback on how candidates perform in the classroom.
"The children know and understand about the sort of adults we want to work in the school," says headteacher Sue Attard. "They work in the classroom with these adults, they observe how they interact with the children and they come back with what they think."
The school council's role does not end there. Pupils tell their teachers what was good or bad about their lessons. And they visit other schools to see how information communication technology is used, bringing ideas back to their own classrooms.
Mrs Attard says the 276-pupil school in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, began giving its pupils a greater role in decision-making and in improving teaching and learning four years ago.
"I think part of the ethos of the school has to be to create a language of trust in children. As teachers we no longer believe that we are the fountains of knowledge. We believe they have the talents. They are the ones receiving the education and that they should have a view on what they do."
According to the charity School Councils UK, there has been a huge growth in the number of primary schools giving pupils a voice. Whereas a 1998 survey found that 15 per cent of primaries had school councils, the charity now estimates that between 60 and 70 per cent have them.
The organisation's director Jessica Gold says pupil involvement has grown way beyond the idea of school councils as token talking shops discussing toilets and tuck.
"We run school council training days and we used to find that involving students in selection of new members of staff was a very radical idea. Now it's much more commonplace," she says.
"I know of one school where the head won't appoint a candidate unless he or she is in the top two of the students' preferences. So things are certainly developing in positive ways in terms of the role of student voice."
This is firmly on the Government's agenda following the introduction of citizenship education into the curriculum, encouraging debate and active participation by pupils. The new Office for Standards in Education framework also gives children more of a chance to speak up about their education as part of the inspection process.
And the Department for Education and Skills has just published guidelines on pupil participation. Schools and LEAs are required to have regard to this under the 2002 Education Act, but it is left to heads and governors to decide how best to implement it.
Working Together: giving children and young people a say is designed to help schools, governors and education authorities to encourage pupils to take part in decision-making. It gives schools examples of good practice and includes a pull-out poster, with a checklist on what to do for effective participation.
According to the guidelines, research suggests that effective school councils have a positive impact on the general atmosphere in the school, pupils' behaviour, commitment to learning and exclusions.
"Such benefits come about if the council is not symbolic or manipulated," the document says.
The guidance also suggests a greater role in pupil involvement for governing bodies, such as governors going into school to speak to pupils and report on their views. And it says governors could invite pupils to full meetings and committees as observers, to see how a governing body works and what kind of issues are discussed.
The National College for School Leadership says many schools are now using its networked learning communities programme, in which groups of schools join together on school improvement, to share good practice and to involve children in developing teaching and learning. Lark Rise lower school is part of a network of 15 schools in which children join forces to talk about the use of ICT in the classroom and give feedback to teachers on lessons.
Mrs Attard says: "At the end of every lesson there's a reflection time - not token plenary sessions like show and tell, but really asking what we have all learned today. It's a matter of asking 'What have I done as a teacher that's helped and what have I done that's inhibited you?'"
But how does a teacher take to being told by a pupil that perhaps the lesson isn't as effective as it might be? Mrs Attard insists the feedback approach has come from the staff themselves. "It wasn't that I said I wanted the views of the children. It came from staff looking at teaching strategies and asking how we know the children are learning."
Bosham school near Chichester is one of eight West Sussex primaries in a network aiming to develop their school councils' role.
Headteacher Niki Thomas says: "What happens with school councils is quite often they get dragged into what I would call the management stuff of the school. Things like toilet paper in the loos.
"I'm not knocking that because I think it's important that children feel they have a voice with all those things. But what we are trying to say is 'hang on a minute - these are the learners in the learning process. How are they consulted and how are they involved?' We're trying to bring it into the business of why we are here - the whole teaching and learning debate."
Primaries in the network set their school councils the task of debating what makes good learning, and then devised a list of which elements go together to make a good lesson. Pupils then visited the other schools to gather ideas for a top 10 list of recommendations.
"They went with their clipboards and toured around, asked teachers in the host school what they did in their lessons that was visual, auditory and kinesthetic. And they came up with some tips for effective teaching that include these," says Miss Thomas.
But isn't this the teacher's territory? Can primary pupils really understand different learning styles enough to have a real input? Miss Thomas insists they do. "They are astonishing - these children never cease to amaze me," she says.
"We had one Year 6 pupil telling the head of another primary school 'this is what I think you should be doing'. And they are quite happy to speak out - they don't have any baggage."
Are the teachers happy to be told? She admits it is not all roses around the door. Some staff are uneasy about getting feedback and having pupils from other schools casting a critical eye over their classrooms.
She says it is about bringing in culture change, and that schools have to be prepared to take risks. "It's a constant drip-feed culture. We are constantly reinforcing that message, that if we're not getting it right for the children, we are not getting it right."
Mrs Attard says the feedback she has had from children's involvement in candidate selection shows that their involvement is anything but tokenism, and that they are more than up to the task. She recounts how with the recent appointment of a special needs learning support assistant, one eight-year-old girl had observed a candidate in the classroom and liked the fact that she had asked "deep questions".
"I asked what she meant by deep questions. And this little girl said, 'You know. The sort of question that really makes you think as a child.'"
For analysis on school councils, go to the advanced search at www.tes.co.uk
and type in pupil power and the date 14.02.2003