Pupil councils are often marginalised from academic issues and too reliant on the dedication of one enthusiastic adult, a new study shows.
But they are growing in number and most pupils and staff believe they give children a say in the running of a school, while local authorities are displaying growing commitment to the concept.
In the first major study of pupil councils, Children in Scotland and Edinburgh University have analysed feedback from all 32 local authorities and the 35 per cent of schools which returned questionnaires, and case studies at six schools.
The project, Having a Say at School, found that 90 per cent of Scottish schools had pupil councils. They differed widely in what they did and how they were structured and operated, but many did not exert the influence they had hoped.
Pupil councils were most likely to discuss issues such as playground games, projects, food, toilets or uniform. Topics "related to academic matters" were least commonly handled by them, and it was rare for councils to have a say in staffing.
"They tend to focus on improving school life, rather than teaching and learning," said Children in Scotland research officer Fungi Gwanzura- Ottemoller.
They also suffered from being "overly reliant on enthusiastic (adult) individuals", and their quality could dip sharply if that person left.
Researchers noted "virtually nothing" was said about the importance of adult advisers helping pupils to become more skilled in council work or weak councils to become stronger. "It seems a shame that the aspiration for pupil councils to be `laboratories of democracy' is rarely backed up by commitment of time, energy and resources to operate them," the researchers state.
Pupil councils did not generally view themselves as "playing a clear leadership" role, and members rarely sat on senior management teams or parent councils.
Few had their own budget and only "very modest resources" were available in most cases, while only about half received special training.
But pupil councils were "by far the most common formal mechanism for giving students a voice", and showed local authorities' increasing commitment to giving them an active role in schools, said Kay Tisdall, professor of childhood policy at Edinburgh University.
Some 84 per cent of pupil members and 84 per cent of school staff "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that they gave pupils a say in running their schools.
But primary pupils and those in small schools were much more likely to view their pupil council favourably. Only 11 of 21 authorities with special schools said that all have pupil councils.
The time allocated by local authority officers to pupil councils varied from half their time to a single day a year. Only 12 authorities had a formal policy relating to pupil councils, and only nine provided training.
The researchers warned that past research suggested a tokenistic pupil council had "a greater impact in generating pupil disaffection than having no council at all".