Pupil power

14th February 2003 at 00:00
As a class teacher, I often reminded pupils that they had power because they were in the majority: the classroom could only work by mutual consent.

They would marvel at this apparent contradiction and I'd explain that I couldn't force them to learn or behave. It was a choice they each had to make. When, as a fresh-faced deputy at Kilmorie primary in 1997, I was asked by my head to set up a school council, my only experience was of a council that had spent all its time in a power struggle with the head over having a tuck shop. It hadn't worked and left pupils disenchanted.

Structure is important. Staff and students need to understand the rationale for decisions such as membership, length of service, meeting times, and the council's place in the whole-school decision-making process. At Kilmorie, we try to offer the experience to as many children as we can, and make the council, as far as possible, pupil-driven. We have annual elections in which each class (reception to Year 6) elects two representatives. Termly elections then replace one of these. This helps continuity and gives each child the chance to represent his or her class for at least a term.

Continuity is the biggest challenge. Councillors become skilled over their term and the change of personnel at the end of a year means losing many effective systems and practices. Our partial solution is to elect three Year 5 children at the end of summer to sit on the council throughout the following school year. This group, known as "founder members" (a name suggested by the children), are the pupil facilitators of the new group.

The children meet in the staffroom, where we give them refreshments. Staff may attend as observers or at the council's invitation. More recently, our learning mentor has taken on the role of adult facilitator, and I attend some meetings to be briefed or to consult and debate on particular issues.

We also hold regular class meetings to make sure the views expressed at meetings are representative of all pupils.

The founder members ensure an agenda is circulated and that minutes are available. Teachers are expected, depending on the age of the children, to support councillors in getting debate going. Our school council has tackled a range of issues, with varied success, such as adults smoking next to the playground, parking on the zigzag lines, toilets and catering. The governing body also consulted them on qualities required for the new headteacher (I got the job - in February 2001). They have worked out playground systems, appointed pupil referees to keep order in the football cage and worked a lunch hour alongside meal supervisors to increase their understanding of pressures they faced. Our parent-teacher association consults them every year about which charity it should sponsor.

In 2000, we allowed the children, through the council, to plan and run the school for a day. They were told they could organise it as they wished as long as everyone was safe and no laws were broken. They opted to keep learning as their focus - with a large measure of fun. It was very successful, and teachers and children gained a lot from the experience.

There were also some powerful messages about how the children think they learn best. They opted, for example, for an integrated day and very practical lessons. One class wrote a play they later performed, which involved literacy, numeracy, art, and so on. Others designed, built and tested everything from boats to bombs - and even made jewellery from sweets.

Ken Johnson is head of Kilmorie primary school in the London borough of Lewisham

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