Pupil power

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Young people want a say in their education - and that's not just the lessons. It's the clothes they wear and the food they eat. They want their opinions to be heard, and more and more schools are listening. Pupil power is about democracy, equality, and human rights. It's about children becoming key members of an educational partnership. It's also about vegetarian options in the canteen, new drinks machines and lockers for everyone. At its heart is that symbol of empowerment - the school council.

Ridiculed when they first appeared back in the 1970s, councils are back in fashion. But does democracy make for better schools? How much power should pupils have? And are school councils really a vehicle for citizenship and change - or just an excuse to moan about the meals?

Why have a school council?

Because the days of children being seen and not heard have gone. Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child affirms "the right of children to express their views on all matters of concern to them, and to have those views taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity". A school council is an effective way of allowing them to exercise that right. The Welsh Assembly has already said it would like to see a council in every school. Although ministers in Scotland and England haven't gone that far, both countries are working on statutory guidelines that will echo the sentiments of UN article 12.

The benefits?

School councils help pupils develop important listening, mediating and problem-solving skills, and can make them feel valued and self-confident.

They can provide a link with the community, offer excellent PR opportunities - and are also the perfect vehicle for learning about citizenship and stimulating an interest in politics. And, most important, there's growing evidence that pupil participation makes schools happier and more productive. A study conducted last year by Derry Hannam, funded by the charity Community Service Volunteers, looked at 12 schools deemed "more than usually student participative". It found they had higher attendance rates and lower exclusion rates than would be expected. It also found that pupils had higher self-esteem and performed better academically than pupils in comparable but less participative schools.

Making a school council work

Gideon Lyons of School Councils UK says one in three primary schools and two in three secondaries now have councils made up of elected representatives. But he estimates that only around one in 10 operates with "real effectiveness".

An effective student body has to be promoted actively. It should feature in prospectuses and newsletters, and have its own noticeboard. Agendas need to be publicised and minutes posted promptly in every classroom after meetings. If possible, sessions should take place during lesson time to ensure a full turnout - and send a clear message about the value of the council. Make sure meetings are regular - twice every half-term should be a minimum - but try to keep them short and purposeful. A time limit is a sensible precaution. Time also needs to be set aside for "class councils" where school councillors can get a feel for grassroots opinion.

Most schools find an adult facilitator makes meetings more productive. It's a key role; the person must resist the temptation to keep order or steer the councillors in the "right" direction. Their job is to stimulate, encourage and recommend useful resources. Inviting a range of authority figures - the headteacher, the bursar, a governor - can give meetings a sense of importance. "But we're not there to control them," says one head.

"We're there to answer to them."

Toilets and greasy chips

Most council discussions tackle apparently mundane matters. The three most common topics for discussion in secondary schools are facilities, meals and uniform. "Playground issues" top the list in primary schools. But what the council discusses is less important than the freedom to express opinions and make decisions. A sense of ownership can transform attitudes, even on seemingly trivial issues. "They picked the decor for the new toilets," says Sarah Purtil of Kingsbury high school in the London borough of Brent. "It's hideous. We wouldn't have chosen it in a million years. But it hasn't been graffitied or vandalised once."

The Summerhill experience

Summerhill - an independent school founded in Suffolk in 1921 - is perhaps the best known "democratic" school. Pupils choose whether or not to attend lessons, and at the centre of school life is a weekly democratic meeting at which all rules and punishments are decided. The opinion of a senior member of staff carries no more weight that that of the youngest pupil. "We're trailblazers," says headteacher Zoe Readhead. "In recent years there's been a surge of interest in what we do here." The school has official visiting days when pupils and staff from other schools can see Summerhill democracy in action.

There are a handful of similar schools around the world - almost all independents. But the Democratic School of Hadera in Israel is a state-run school that, like Summerhill, has optional lessons and an all-powerful student parliament. It also has a lengthy waiting list (entry is decided by drawing lots) and its popularity has led to the opening of other similar schools, all supported by the government and used as training schools for new teachers.

How much power should a council have?

At one extreme is the Summerhill model of one person, one vote - teachers and students alike. "Anything else is a false democracy," insists Zoe Readhead. At the other are schools where the council is little more than a debating club. "The first and last rule," says one head, "is that my word is final."

Most schools aim for something in between. At Wolverhampton grammar school, for example, head Bernard Trafford says that if the council voted to abolish school uniform, its views would be considered but not necessarily adopted. "It wouldn't be their decision, but it wouldn't be my decision either. We would include governors and parents too. The council would be part of the decision-making process."

The important thing is to ensure the council has credibility - perhaps by allowing it to spend money. If its opinions are routinely ignored, students will soon become cynical. You need to be prepared to act on council decisions even if you don't like them. Define some areas where the council can have autonomy - if necessary, agree a written constitution - but also be clear about areas in which it has no authority. If students understand the extent of their powers they are less likely to become disillusioned.

Above all, be brave. "If a council is nothing more than a focus group it will fail," warns Gideon Lyons.

Won't there be chaos?

No. Few schools report councils acting irresponsibly. In fact, a common complaint is that councils tend to be too conservative. "They gave me a hard time for not getting tough over drugs," says one head. "They actually voted for more homework," sighs another. "Their views are always the same as mine," complains a third. A lively school council cannot be an elitist organisation packed with the usual worthies, so try to persuade a variety of pupils to stand for election. And make sure elected members canvass the opinions of everyone in their class, not just the voluble few. A councillor's job is to represent the people who elect them, not to argue their own views.

Being patient

Councils need to understand that they probably won't be able to make a difference overnight. One council was keen that every pupil should have a decent-sized locker in working order. Although the school accepted that the request was reasonable, it took four years to accomplish. "Young people expect instant results," says Gideon Lyons. "The truth is that schools change very slowly." Try to act quickly on a council decision, but if that's impossible, agree a time-scale and provide regular progress updates.

Because the pace of change can be slow, it's important to ensure the council has continuity. It may be tempting to swap councillors every term, but allowing pupils to serve one-year stints - or even longer - will give them time to develop skills and bring projects to fruition. If you want to involve more pupils, set up several councils, each with its own responsibility

"Mrs Jones is ugly, useless and horrible..."

Many schools forbid councils to discuss individual teachers. Others believe this is a fundamental part of the democratic process - after all, teachers discuss pupils at staff meetings. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, says allowing direct criticism of staff is unprofessional. "It breeds fear and mistrust," he says. "That's never a healthy atmosphere."

But one head who does permit students to voice concerns about teaching methods claims that "no one's ever been vindictive, and the criticisms have usually been valid and productive". A possible compromise is to allow discussion about subjects and the way they are taught, but not individual teachers.

If you do allow a council to criticise - or compliment - individual staff, make sure staff have the right to reply direct to the council. At one school where pupils complained about the attitude of the catering staff, the head of catering asked some of the council representatives to work in the kitchens one lunchtime to experience the pressure her staff were under.

The matter was resolved with increased understanding on both sides.

"Well you chose her... "

Many schools now involve pupils at all stages of the staff appointments process - from drawing up a job description to giving feedback on sample lessons and conducting their own interviews. "The student panel asks pertinent questions and is skilled at reading body language," says Julie Warne, head of the City school in Sheffield. "We almost always end up agreeing with their decision."

Once pupils have helped to select teachers, they can contribute to their professional development by becoming involved in appraisals and feedback on schemes of work. In Austria - where the school council system extends to regional and national assemblies - children even help to plan lessons.

Can school councils work at primary level?

Research by Monica Taylor at the National Foundation for Educational Research suggests that satisfaction with the school council tends to be higher in primary than in secondary schools. Primaries have a structure that makes councils work; children spend most of their days in form groups, so councillors have a closer connection with their constituency. And class councils can be a natural extension of circle time. Smaller numbers also make the process more manageable; in some small primaries it may even be possible to have "whole-school" councils rather than elected representatives.

Beyond the council

The next logical step is to invite pupils to become an integral part of the school's decision-making process, rather than a separate body. Having pupil representatives at staff meetings, curriculum review meetings, even budget management meetings, helps students understand how schools work. And it needn't be a token gesture. Many schools find pupils bring a fresh perspective and make valuable contributions.

It has been tried before. The 1977 Taylor report on governing bodies recommended pupil governors. Some authorities followed this up, but the Conservatives scrapped the plans before the end of the decade.

Structured meetings are just one way of giving students a voice. Other expressions of pupil power include peer support groups - where students offer each other counselling and advice - and student newspapers. Real pupil power is when all areas of school life - assemblies, plays, concerts, sports events - provide an opportunity not just to participate but to organise and take the initiative.

Towards democracy

A study commissioned this year by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers concluded that school councils work best where democracy, participation and welfare are part of the school ethos. If you're not sure whether you work in an autocracy or democracy, look around. Are staff valued, consulted and free to voice opinions without fear of reprisal? Does the head operate an open-door policy? Are there clear grievance procedures for staff and pupils? Do pupils have the right to sit exams that the school believes they will fail? Are prefects elected or chosen by the staff? Are comment boxes and questionnaires an accepted part of school life?

Headteachers who have tried to make their schools more democratic usually admit the process is hard work. Staff may feel vulnerable, parents may worry about discipline, pupils may become pushy and rude. The process of empowerment can be slow and painful. Staff and management will need to develop thick skins. "But in the end it is worth it," says Bernard Trafford. "A democratic school is a happier place for everyone - and I've got the questionnaires to prove it."

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