Power and purpose

23rd March 2001 at 00:00
Stephanie Turner discusses the benefits that school councils bring to learning and school life

The inclusion of citizenship in the national curriculum, statutory in secondary schools from 2002, has given new impetus to school councils. Traditionally a part of some secondary schools, councils are increasingly being adopted in primary, secondary and special schools. They enable pupils to play an active part in the life of the school, to learn through participation and to experience democracy at first hand. Experiencing both the power and the limitations of democracy enables them to make comparisons with the local council and the national Parliament.

Ashley School, a special secondary school in Widnes, has had a school council for more than nine years and has its own council chamber. The school council enjoys widespread support and attempts to involve all pupils, so that it is not elitist. Over the years several sub-committees have been established to consider different aspects, including innovative curriculum committees for reading, writing, citizenship, maths and science. Student representatives report back to their form, supported by their form tutor, so all members of the class are involved and can play a part in a committee. Currently more than 60 of the school's 108 students participate in the school council or its committees.

Through the school council, pupils demonstrate that they are capable of being effective citizens. It provides an out-of-classroom learning environment and the small group committees encourage the effective use of language and the development of thinking skills. Pupils have a say in the direction and purpose of their learning environment.

Ashley School Council has adopted certain principles, including a formal business approach to meetings. Every meeting and every committee should be sitting for a purpose intrinsic to the life and ethos of the school and the wider community. The council is designed to motivate children. It influences the way they communicate with others, encouraging them to reflect on their own behaviour and to consider the response of others.

However, it is in the development of language skills that the council has had the most profound effect on the curriculum. Speaking skills are developed through trial and error. All comments are respected and valued, and the children are taught to use constructive questions. Taing part in discussions and conferences contributes to national curriculum requirements and supports the literacy strategy.

The school council does not become involved with discipline and is not seen as a body of prefects. Rather it is the means by which all students take responsibility for their own learning and contribute to the supportive community that is the school. Contributions to the school council are important features of individual records of achievement.

The school council voted to change the school's name to honour a local man, Jack Ashley (now Lord Ashley), and he regularly invites school councillors to visit Parliament. The school council also plays a part in ensuring the implementation of the school's charter. The school is working with the Institute for Citizenship to develop resources for key stage 3.

Ashley School's latest plans are to video school council meetings and relay them to classrooms, so that all students can make themselves aware of what goes on. A videotape collection of proceedings would further enhance democratic accountability.

The school is also negotiating sponsorship from a major firm to install the cameras in the School Council Chamber.

Since 1995 the council at Ashley School has been part of the school development plan and has received financial support from the school budget. The school has received numerous local and national awards, is at the forefront of school council development, and received favourable comments from the Office for Standards in Education. A National Foundation for Educational Research survey last year for the Institute for Citizenship showed that more than 90 per cent of students felt they had a say in how the school was run.

Many other schools are developing councils by building on existing groups within school such as eco-committees, or beginning with class councils. It may seem an additional and daunting task for teachers but efforts to increase pupil democracy are amply rewarded.

Schools interested in establishing a school council can contact the following organisations for advice: Schools Council UK, tel: 020 8349 2459. Web: www.schoolcouncils.org Institute for Citizenship, tel: 020 7935 4777. Web: www. citizen.org.uk Citizenship Foundation, tel: 020 7367 0500. Web: www.citfou.org.uk Stephanie Turner is a consultant in citizenship education.E-mail: st36@tutor.open.ac.uk

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