Raymond Ross reports on how one education authority encourages democracy and citizenship in pupils of all ages
Speaking to item seven, Young People and Substance Abuse, at Stirling Council's children's committee meeting, Jennifer O'Neill gave a positive appraisal of Balfron High School's confidential counselling service.
She described the "Hole-in-the-Wall", a dedicated space in the school where properly vetted senior pupils, trained by the guidance staff in counselling skills, offer confidential advice and support. Her appraisal of this advice and support system, which raised points about tackling drugs issues, was welcomed and individual committee members picked up some of her points and developed them.
In other words, it was committee business as usual - except that Jennifer O'Neill is not an elected councillor. She is a sixth year student at Balfron High School and an elected student representative, the third to serve on Stirling Council's children's committee.
The children's committee differs from a traditional education committee not only in that it has a student representative, but also that the director of housing and social services also reports to it, along with the director of education services.
"This means that all children's and family issues are dealt with together, everything affecting our young people from HMI inspections and school attendance to foster care and adoption," says Margaret Doran, head of education services.
"Integration is the key to our approach and that also means empowering pupils," she says.
Jennifer O'Neill is evidence of this integration and empowerment. She has served as a pupil council representative at her own school for the past three years as well as being on the student forum for the past two years.
Every Stirling school has a pupil council where children and young people are elected to represent classes and stages in the school and to contribute to the decision-making process in matters which affect them and the whole school community.
"Pupil councils are consulted about policy matters at school level and education service policies are considered in some pupil councils," says Margaret Doran.
The student forum on which Jennifer serves consists of two representatives from each secondary school, who meet once a term to consider issues which affect them, including council policies and practices.
Children from P5 to S6 also attend area forum meetings twice a term to raise issues which affect their quality of life. "Recently, for example, a P7 girl from St Ninian's Primary attended a Stirling and Bannockburn area forum to raise the issue of a flooded underpass which was causing concern for children at the school who were having difficulties crossing the road," says Ms Doran.
"In another instance, Cornton Primary School pupils were involved with the council architects designing the new shopping precinct and they made a representation to the area forum."
With regard to public inquiries raised at area forums, the council is committed to responding within 10 working days.
Over and above these councils and forums, there is a Stirling civic assembly which meets six times annually and is attended by some 25 secondary pupils. "We believe this is democracy at work," says Ms Doran. "It is about encouraging citizenship and responsibility, and the process begins with circle time in every primary and in some secondary classes.
"In circle time, each child is involved in a democratic decision-making process. Circle time sows the seeds of empowerment and raises self-esteem. It's also about problem solving," she says.
At a P4 circle time at Allan's Primary in Stirling, pupils are discussing bullying. Although relating to a recent case of bullying, no names are mentioned. The children discuss what they think of bullies. Responses vary from "I think they are good on the inside and bad on the outside" and "I think they will regret what they do" to "I think they should go to private schools" and "I think they should be strung up".
They also discuss what to do if you are bullied: "Keep away from them"; "Ignore them"; "Tell a grown up"; "Go to a teacher". Returning to class, each pupil draws a picture of what they think a bully looks like.
"Circle time allows the pupils to express themselves, to share their feelings and experiences and to feel their opinion is valued," says headteacher Mairi Breen.
Ask Jennifer O'Neill at the other end of the age range what she thinks of the children's committee meeting, and her words echo those of Ms Breen: "I felt that what I said was valued. Points I raised were taken seriously. It wasn't tokenism. It certainly encourages me to speak up more."