Power to the pupil
Each child who can form his or her view on matters affecting him or her has the right to express those views if he or she wishes," states the European Convention on Human Rights. The words are a far cry from the view that children should be seen and not heard, but are increasingly finding manifestation through the involvement of school pupils in decision-making.
The most practical and common mechanism for channelling pupils' opinion is the pupil council. Kirkhill Primary in Aberdeen, in the heart of the Kincorth housing estate, provides a striking example of how, at even an early age, pupils can take part in the decision-making process.
Headteacher Lorraine Brodie set up a pupil council in 1995, to increase the sense of community in the school. From the outset, she sought to involve the 270 pupils in drawing up a "constitution". Through classroom discussions, they decided one girl and one boy from each class should sit on the council and these should be elected by annual secret ballot. The suggestion box to help set the agenda for their weekly meetings also came from the pupils.
Ms Brodie outlines the interaction between herself and the representatives on the pupil council: "They make up their own agenda, although I can add things I want to talk to them about, like playground behaviour. On that matter, they thought the little children were not getting a fair chance to play on the equipment, so we changed the school timetable because of them."
Pupils suggested a system whereby playground activities were shared on a rota, and break times split between the P1-4 pupils and the rest of the school.
They also met suppliers of the new school uniform and chose the three sweatshirt colours, with the result that it is now worn voluntarily by nearly all the pupils.
Pupils' involvement in improving school life has extended to other practical matters, including the fixing of long-broken toilet locks. It has also influenced the school's use of "golden time", based on the promotion of positive behaviour described by Jenny Mosely in her book Turning Your School Around. Golden time is the 30 minutes each week the school allocates for activities chosen by pupils. The pupils considered they were not getting to do the things they wanted, so each class was given Pounds 35 to buy board games.
Ms Brodie says of these consultations: "There's a real sense of identity in the school which can only be good. We're a team."
When pupil councils are involved in decision-making at secondary school level, their role becomes more complex. Teen-agers' expectations of what they should decide are greater, the size of the school makes the mechanisms more unwieldy and the issues up for discussion are more at the heart of the school's management, in particular those relating to conduct and discipline.
This month Dumfries High School finishes what turned out to be a year-long consultation process with pupils to draw up a code of conduct. Undertaken as part of its broader "Working in Concert" management initiative, it stemmed from disciplinary inconsistencies that staff believed led to confrontations with pupils.
Assistant headteacher David Moore believed a policy on conduct could only be properly devised if pupils' views were sought and acknowledged wherever possible. Last March the first draft of the code of conduct was circulated to pupils and suggestions for amendments passed back through the pupil council. Mr Moore was surprised at the large number of amendments suggested by pupils and staff alike, but insists this has contributed to the process's efficacy.
On the question of punishments, pupils believed offences were too specific and there should be categories to allow an element of flexibility. The whole system of punishments was scrapped and has been replaced with one that clarifies tolerance levels for types of misdemeanours.
"Everybody knows where they stand now. If someone pushes another person down the stairs, they know that it's assault and they will get the same punishment wherever they are in the school," says Mr Moore. Other, simpler, issues, such as the flow of pupil traffic at lunch-time, have also been ironed out to prevent unnecessary incidents.
In February this year, members of the pupil council were briefed on how to run a short discussion session on the revised code of conduct. The briefing was held during an extended registration, and the results are pending.
Mr Moore says several of the amendments suggested are simply common sense, and that sorting these out through consultation is not only good in principle, but will lead to more effective discipline. He says: "Most of the issues have been agreed. We're still working on chewing gum and the wearing of football team colours, but there's a sense of ownership on the part of the pupils because they had a part in drafting the code."
Like democracy everywhere, pupil involvement in decision-making has its perils. Teachers and pupils warn of cliques emerging and voting based on personal popularity, but as with democracy at large, the risks are deemed preferable to the alternatives.