Lord Ashley of Stoke, known to everyone as former Labour MP Jack Ashley, was the charmer, as ever. "I don't really know," he admitted. "But you try to persuade me why you should have the vote at 16 - and why not at 14 or 12. "
The girl took a half a second to consider the question and came back with, "You become a young adult at 16." This met with general approval from her 18 or so fellow pupils as well as from the venerable Lord. "I think you've converted me to giving 16-year-olds the vote," he smiled.
A year ago, the student council at Ashley School in Widnes, Cheshire, voted to change the name of the school to honour Jack, a son of Widnes and a friend to disabled people everywhere. It is a special school for moderate learning difficulties, and these student councillors all have problems, many of them stemming from emotional and behavioural difficulties. Holding their annual general meeting at the House of Lords, preceded by a tour of the building, and followed by an hour in discussion with a peer, their keynote speaker, was something that not many other schools like theirs would even dream of attempting. Neither is the establishment of a student council, given the problems of the pupil intake. But fuelled by the passionate commitment of deputy head Bob Windsor, the student council is now in its fourth year and is changing the way its participants feel about themselves and about their relationship with the world outside school.
Originally, the council started off as a health and safety committee. Its effectiveness faltered at first, but gained ground as time went on. One of the issues it raised, prompted by a question from a young representative, was the use of fire extinguishers and, specifically, whether all the staff knew how to use them. An in-service training day on fire prevention and management was organised for staff. Since then, the school has joined the Eco School project, organised by the Tidy Britain Group.
Student council reps oversee, monitor and evaluate the environment-related activities that being a part of this national project entails, such as reducing litter and waste, cutting down on fuel and water bills and increasing environmental awareness within the school and the local community.
An Eco School issue was raised at the AGM, allowing Lord Ashley to see first hand how the school council dealt with its environmental commitments. One of the lads suggested a small but significant improvement to the local environment of the community: cleaning up a rubbish-filled pond on the grounds of the local hospital. "And we thought," the lad went on, "about putting a bench alongside the pond so you could sit there and have a good think." Added a girl, "It would also be good for patients inside the hospital to look out the window and see the pond."
As far as Jack Ashley was concerned, as he put it to the group, "This is preparing you for citizenship in every way. What you're doing is asserting yourselves and participating in the running of your school. Many schools don't do this. If more pupils did what you were doing, the voices of young people would be heard more clearly."
Bob Windsor whole-heartedly agrees. The self-esteem that these children gain from sitting on a committee, listening to each other respectfully and making decisions that have an impact on their school or, occasionally, on their community, cannot be overstated. Acknowledging this, Mr Windsor arranges for each student council meeting to be held in a room at a local hotel using its conference facilities, to underline the value placed on their council work.
Giving the students a voice has been a long process of engendering in them the confidence and the trust to participate. "Even though the students at the school are a heterogeneous group," says Mr Windsor, "a common feature is their general reluctance within discussions to express and indeed to value their own thoughts and ideas. But the formalised committee work has given the students who participate in them a sense of worth and presence. We are aware, as all in our profession are aware, that students expected to remain silent will indeed remain silent."