School councils are on the way back. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.
"I hate that expression:'Children should be seen and not heard'. It's the old way. My philosophy is how can you make things better for the children if you don't know what the children want?" Rory Parker, 11, a Year 7 pupil at Deben High School in Felixstowe, summed up the views of youngsters at the recent launch of the school council.
He warned that without consultation with young people, Deben high would "sleepwalk" into the new millennium. "The world is changing and Deben needs to change with it," he said.
His sentiments are shared by many. All over the country school councils are enjoying a comeback and the opinions of young and old alike are being sought by organisations such as the police, unions and councils.
The concept of allowing children and young people to be heard has been firmly embraced by the Government in its policies of education for citizenship and teaching about democracy.
The Education and Employment Secretary, David Blunkett, has set up an advisory group to help schools teach pupils about their social duties and encourage them to participate in community life. Mr Blunkett, like many of his Cabinet colleagues, is known to favour the inclusion of young people in forums.
Young people were represented in the Millennium Dome consultations and a focus group on unwanted teenage pregnancy, due to be set up in the Spring, will involve teenagers - particularly boys, who will be encouraged to discuss the emotional as well as physical aspects of relationships.
The public-service union, Unison, and the National Association of Social Workers in Education, recently set up panels of truants to find out why children bunk off school and what can be done to attract them back into the classroom.
Professor Bernard Crick, who chairs the Advisory Group for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy, said that forums for debating and policy-making were vital for the personal development of children.
"Quite apart from teaching children about the political institutions of the country, any grounding in citizenship requires the development of verbal skills and self-confidence. Young people need to think about and present their own arguments and develop an empathy with the opinions of others.
"My own view is that this was an area which had been developing very nicely in the 1970s before being hit in the 1980s by the political climate of the time. The over-loading of the national curriculum also left fewer opportunities for these activities.
"I think we are learning again now that people are not educated who cannot express themselves in speech as well as on paper."
It is in local authorities that "child power" is having its biggest impact.
Last week, Lambeth organised its third Children's Parliament, to consult with pupils about future policy on behaviour and discipline. The group comprised 80 south London youngsters aged eight to 16 who discussed what is and is not acceptable behaviour, the effectiveness of exclusions and considered ways of helping vulnerable children.
Janet Manning, of Lambeth's communications department, said the move was designed to involve everyone at the sharp end of education.
"We ask the schools to choose the children and we stress that it is a participation event so the youngsters should be fairly confident and not afraid of expressing their opinions in front of strangers," she said.
"Feedback from the previous parliaments indicated that the pupils were enraptured by the occasion. They were empowered by making statements about issues which affected them to people who were listening and could act on their recommendations."
In Tameside, Year 11 pupils are to be asked to sit on groups which will advise district assemblies in each of its nine towns. In addition, youngsters will be included in research panels - groups made up of residents - to be surveyed at least twice a year on different council services.
A spokeswoman for Tameside metropolitan borough council said: "Young people are the citizens of tomorrow and should be treated as such. What the council does affects their lives."
David Hutcheson, the head of Deben high school, said the inclusion of children and young people on panels, councils and forums, gave them a sense of involvement in issues of which they might not normally feel a part.
Indeed, his appointment as head late last year followed an interview process which included the participation of pupils.
Mr Hutcheson said: "It is about valuing young people and giving them an insight into representative structures. They see that if you want something done, then there are channels through which to go."
John Jones, head of Ruffwood school in Kirkby, Merseyside, set up a school council when he saw that children were losing a sense of personal responsibility.
Four years on, the 20 elected members make decisions ranging from how to deal with bullies to monitoring the standard of the chips in the canteen.
Mr Jones said: "It has given them self-esteem. Being a council member has a certain kudos attached to it. Staff told me the members would not want to wear badges identifying themselves, but the kids would kill for them now."
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