Power to the pupils

5th September 2003 at 01:00
There's a revolution taking place unnoticed, write Joe Hallgarten (left) and Tony Breslin.

Among the plethora of new initiatives that are currently establishing themselves in classrooms, one has been largely missed by the educational press, local education authorities and schools themselves: the newly announced regulations about the role of pupils on governing bodies.

From this month, governors will be able to appoint under-18-year-olds as associate members. These pupils can attend meetings and be members of governing body committees, although they will not have voting rights.

Some schools already involve pupils as observers at governors' meetings and others allow a more active role. The significance of associate governorship is that, for the first time, this kind of participation is backed by law.

No longer the wacky initiative of a handful of schools (or even a larger number of schools on a handful of occasions), we believe that pupil governorship will rapidly become a feature of the mainstream. By the end of this decade, having pupils as governors (possibly with voting rights) won't just be a common feature, it will seem strange that they were never at the table in the first place. But why should pupils be interested in this and why should schools embrace such a change?

For those pupils who become governors, it will be an opportunity for applied, active citizenship, which might be accredited through a GCSE short course in citizenship studies, a certificate in community volunteering or a BTec award in school governance.

More importantly, it will enable pupils to increase their influence over the real business of the school. Rather than simply voicing the usual concerns about toilets, tattoos and tuck shops, as is the narrow remit of some school councils, pupil associate governors are as likely to be interested in the other three Ts: tests, targets and tables - representing the genuine voice of the learner and contributing to real debates about the curriculum and education. Moreover, the structures through which these pupils will be selected and through which they will represent and provide feedback to their peers, offer learning opportunities for all pupils.

And this learning translates into achievement. Derry Hannam's research on pupil participation reveals a strong correlation between schools, of whatever type or circumstance, that encourage pupil participation, and pupil achievement, both in terms of formal examination success and with regard to a range of other factors.

Hannam's "participative" schools recorded not just more A*s and A-C grades but also had fewer exclusions and pupils leaving with no or very low levels of examination success. Put simply, a governing body and school that does more to engage its pupils is more likely to meet those pupils' needs. And, in doing so, governing bodies might evolve into livelier places than they have sometimes become.

Of course, some will argue that pupil participation is better encouraged through other channels: through school councils with real teeth (and real budgets); through the development of a national school students'

association as is commonplace in Europe; through involving pupils on job interview panels, as is the case in the Connexions Service, and a small number of schools (all of whom report positively on the experience).

Associate governorship is not the only or even the best mechanism for giving expression to the learners' voice. But it does represent a symbolic shift in how secondary schools are expected to engage with their pupils and their broader community, just as other public and educational bodies are increasingly called to.

The fact that only 3 per cent of people serving on public bodies are under the age of 35 reveals the scale of the task. Perhaps the involvement of pupils can provide an induction into this type of civic engagement, as important an aspect of active citizenship as participating in a community group or voting in elections.

Twenty years from now, the sorts of argument that might be advanced against the participation of pupils on governing bodies (which usually allege a fatal combination of high boredom and low expertise) will seem as bizarre as the arguments 20 years ago against the introduction of parent governors, now a permanent fixture.

Later this term, the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Citizenship Foundation plan to bring together a set of committed schools that are keen to test out associate governorship.

The big changes often go unnoticed. Cast an eye away from the annual standards panic. Whatever you consider its merits, we think the formal arrival of the pupil governor is one change to watch.

Tony Breslin is chief executive of the Citizenship Foundation www.citizenshipfoundation.org.ukJoe Hallgarten is a senior education researcher at the Institute of Public Policy Research, www.ippr.orgcontact j.hallgarten@ippr.org

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