One speaker at a time, please

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Pupil councils are a beneficial way to get children involved in running their school, but a pupil parliament can be even better. Douglas Blane reports

Being a member of a pupil parliament is a serious business, whether the topic for debate is fund-raising for a children's charity or bringing back the egg-and-spoon race on sports day. However, serious does not mean solemn.

"Our pupil parliament is a great way to get children involved in running the school," says Elizabeth Wood, headteacher of Curriehill Primary, Edinburgh. "It's really lively and a lot of fun.

"Of course, when you give kids the opportunity to speak up, you sometimes get ideas that are impractical, even wild, like hang-gliding for the P3s.

But you also learn a lot about what matters to the children."

The key point is that she means almost all the children, not just a select few. It is a big task controlling a hall full of youngsters with strong opinions and a burning desire to express them, but the big difference between the pupil parliament at Curriehill Primary and the more common pupil councils is that the former is democracy in its classical form: direct rather than representative.

"I wouldn't want to be too critical of pupil councils," says Ms Wood, "but I sometimes feel they consist of just a few confident people doing confident things. What I like about our pupil parliament is that everybody gets the chance to express an opinion.

"You might think it would only be the self-assured who take an active part, the ones who would be on a pupil council anyway, but that's far from the case. The wee, quiet kids you never hear in class stand up and speak out too. They model themselves on the confident ones.

"It's good to watch. It makes you proud of them."

In the assembly hall, all the P4-P7 classes - 150 pupils, many clutching handwritten speeches - are seated in a large circle on the floor. The topic for today is the school development plan.

"This is the time of year when headteachers have to think about next year," explains Ms Wood. "So I'd like you to tell me about PE - games and sports - what you liked and didn't like last year, what new ideas we might try."

Dozens of children put up their hands and Ms Wood calls the speakers in turn. Jennifer talks about rugby lessons, which she hadn't been looking forward to at all. "It seemed like a really rough game and I didn't want to play it. But it was great. I would like to do it again."

Football has also been popular, contrary to many of the girls'


Julia is not keen on hockey, she says. "I keep getting whacked on the shins."

Skipping is unpopular with the boys who get "all fankled up".

In front of such a large audience the pupils, aged eight to 12, speak clearly and articulately, with little trace of nerves or shyness.

Particularly good speeches prompt spontaneous applause and the forest of hands after one speaker ends indicates how keen they all are to speak.

A show of hands establishes that rugby and football are almost universally enjoyed, half the youngsters like gymnastics and netball has only minority appeal. Almost all would welcome more cross-country running and there is active interest in introducing cricket, tennis and capoeira, a sort of martial art and dance form.

The pupil parliament operates smoothly on a small number of rules, says Ms Wood, such as not making insulting remarks about people and listening to a speaker. Over the hour, one "Calm down, please" from her is all it takes to maintain order.

"Each year the older pupils show the new intake what the parliament is about and how to behave," says Ms Wood. "They learn a lot themselves in the process. Because the kids' opinions are being heard, they are all keen to make it work.

"I first tried the idea at my previous school, which was much smaller. I wasn't sure it would work with a large number of kids, but it does."

The outcomes of the sessions can be quite fascinating, says Ms Wood. "We had one recently on what makes a good school. Feeling safe and not being bullied came high on the kids' list, as did teachers who are good at explaining and are strict but fair.

"The biggest surprise was how highly the kids rated hygiene and cleanliness. Appearances matter to them. A school with graffiti and dirty toilets is a bad school."

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