No wallies on our committees

19th April 2013 at 01:00
Teachers at Moorpark Primary care about student voice and citizenship - so much so that they have created 14 discussion forums in which children can share their opinions on anything from literacy to finance

It's not every day you a get a sticker with a smiley face and "Nice manners" printed on it.

"You were very polite when you spoke to us," Abigail (P2) tells me, as she attaches the sticker to my lapel and turns away to take her seat again at the rights-respecting committee in Moorpark Primary in North Ayrshire.

Like all the children above Primary 1, Abigail belongs to one of the 14 student-led committees they now have at the school, says headteacher Elizabeth Monk. "When we first tried giving the children this much say in decision-making, we had the P1s on the committees too. That was three years ago. It didn't work too well. They don't have the attention span. Every year we learn and improve and each year is different because the children are different."

Student committees at Moorpark began in a small way with a student council and an eco committee, she says. "Then staff got to talking about all the different things we could do. It's about citizenship. It's about the children driving things forward in a school. So we've got the You're Just Like Me committee, which is about equality and bullying. Then there's the events committee - and the curriculum committee, which has created certificates for the four capacities. They present those at assemblies. But the children are the best people to tell you all about it."

Timetabled for an hour each Wednesday, the student committees are in session this morning around the school, each one guided - but not run - by a teacher. In Dawn Steele's classroom, the You're Just Like Me members are making friendship orbs - large, spherical objects with many facets, each containing a child's name and a few words that appeal to them.

Casey (P6) explains the purpose of the committee: "It's about making sure there's no bullying in school and everyone is friends. We organised a friendship week and got people to mix. First the big ones drew a picture and they went in together. Then the wee ones picked one out and the big ones had to find who had their picture at playtime and go and talk to them. It shows that it doesn't matter what age you are, you can still be good friends."

The committee also organises a best buddy award, says Daley (P7). "Teachers look out every week to see who has been a good friend. The children give them ideas about who to pick. Then they get given an award."

This committee has been going for three years and the children love it, says Mrs Steele, whose original idea it was. "We don't focus on bullying, although we do talk about it. Instead we try to promote friendship. So it's a positive thing," she says.

Although the P1s no longer sit on committees, they are introduced gently to them by being given guided tours, Mrs Monk says, opening the door to a busy scene, with children of all ages in white coats.

"The committees organise what they're going to do in advance, and it has to be active for the wee ones," she says, beckoning one over. "Megan Rose, tell us why you're wearing goggles, please."

"Because this is the science committee," she says. "They keep your eyes safe."

With the children work in groups, one of the older committee members is moving around and taking notes. "I'm writing down what they say they like," explains Nyall (P7). "So far they've enjoyed Bubbling Wizard's Brew most. That's a chemical reaction between bicarbonate of soda, washing-up liquid and vinegar. They all like that. But we've lots of other things for them to do."

Getting the whole school taking decisions through 14 committees is ambitious, agrees Caroline Holmes who, as principal teacher, serves on four of them - finance, playground, yearbook and transport.

"The hardest part was letting go and allowing students to take real decisions," she says. "That does take a while. We had all been accustomed to organising things ourselves. Sometimes now the planned events succeed and sometimes the children find it hard to do things the way they'd like to. But it's all part of the learning curve - for them and us."

Learning to let go means trusting your children, Mrs Monk says. "It's their school and they know what they want. Last year the finance and health committees decided we didn't have enough resources for wet playtimes. There was a lot of discussion and they decided they wanted a pool table."

The committees then researched options on the internet, she says. "They looked at price, value, robustness, everything. When they'd decided how much money they needed, they organised raffles and competitions and they raised it. They've now got their pool table."

She laughs. "Some of them want to buy more pool tables and I'm not sure that's a great idea. But the point is that the students thought it through themselves and got it done. It was driven by the children."

Getting to this level of student decision-making has been gradual, she says. "At first it was very teacher-led and `this is what we're going to do today, children'. We also had fewer and bigger committees at the start. That didn't work so well."

Having more and smaller committees is much more successful, Mrs Holmes says. "Also, if you get the children to buy in, right at the start, to a vision of what they want to achieve, they get really excited and they go off and have loads of ideas."

Perseverance is essential, Mrs Monk says. "In the beginning, they made an awful lot of posters. The school was plastered with them. Now they are more imaginative. The science committee, for instance, makes volcanoes instead of posters."

Even without the very youngest, it is a challenge to get children of all ages - the structure of every Moorpark committee - working well together, Mrs Holmes says. "It takes getting used to. So you go in gently. You start on small projects. Then, as confidence grows, they become more adventurous. A lot of the committees are now working for awards, such as cycling, Green Flags and rights-respecting awards. But you don't dive straight into that."

Back at the rights-respecting committee, Abigail (P2) explains why she fancied being a member of this one. "I liked the sound of it because I thought we could help people. I like to help people. I like making things, too. Children have rights, like the right to relax and play. We have lots of rights. I don't know them all yet."

Stewart (P2) got a flavour of this committee in Primary 1, he says. "We got to go round all of them and I liked this one. Next year I want to go on the science committee. When we saw that, we did this volcano thing, with stuff falling out of it. That made me like science."

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child forms the basis of this committee's work, depute headteacher Sheena Dunlop explains. "The original document is heavy for young children. A school in Wales has broken it down to child-friendly language and that's what we're using."

The reason all this works is that Moorpark students and teachers take it very seriously. It is not play-acting - though just occasionally it can seem like it. Mrs Monk explains that World Book Day is coming up. "The literacy committee has decided that staff and students are going to celebrate it by dressing up as our favourite characters from fiction. That includes me. Two young ladies came to me yesterday and said, `Mrs Monk, you have to dress up.' So I will be dressing up."

Rights-respecting schools:

Student committees

Communication; Curriculum; Eco; Events; Financial education and Enterprise; Health; International; Literacy; Playground; Rights Respecting Schools Award; Science; Transport; Yearbook; You're Just Like Me

Finance committee gets a taste of the cost and value of everyday food

The work of every committee at Moorpark Primary is celebrated in events and assemblies. Today it's the turn of the finance committee, overseen by principal teacher Caroline Holmes. But first they've organised a workshop for the Primary 3s, to raise their awareness of cost and value when buying food.

"For each item - corn flakes, chocolate, ham, cola, biscuits - there's a savers and a brand version out on the tables," Mrs Holmes says. "They go round in pairs, tasting each one to see if they can tell them apart. They also try organic and ordinary apples and oranges to see if there's any difference in taste."

This particular workshop has run several times before and is known to work well, Mrs Holmes says. "But the committees come up with so many ideas, there isn't enough time in the week to do them all. The aim always is for the committee to plan, organise and run an event, and do the debrief. Then the teacher usually does a follow-up back in class."

This workshop is about learning to spend your money wisely, explains Ryan (P6), one of the committee members presenting it to the P3s. "It's usually hard to tell the cheap ones and the dear ones apart. People worry now about the ham, though, because of the horsemeat. You have to think about these things, though I would usually buy the cheapest."

After the workshop it's time for a finance assembly, with students from every class delivering little presentations on their work to the entire school, seated in the hall. Highlights include the history of coins and the models of banks and cash dispensers the children made. A little quiz on the cost of everyday items, from eggs and sugar to motor-cars, demonstrates the financial awareness of Moorpark's students, as the vast majority, right down to the wee ones, get them right.

Olivia (P3) shares the feelings of her class with the assembled school. "We were all very proud of Alexander and Samuel for representing us on the finance committee, and for working so hard to give us a great money week."

Money Week: bit.lyTXUpc4.

Photographs by Ashley Coombes


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