Pupil power brings wholeschool rewards
One school which has already forged ahead with such pupil involvement strategies is Allan's Primary in Stirling. Raymond Ross reports on the benefits of this devolution
The first education Act passed by the Scottish Parliament, the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act, which received royal assent in July, gives every child in Scotland not only a right to education for the first time, but also a right to be involved in decisions concerning their school.
Paragraph three of section six states: "The development plan shall include an account of the ways in which, and extent to which, the headteacher of the school will (a) consult the pupils in attendance at the school; and (b) seek to involve them, when decisions require to be made concerning the everyday running of the school."
While some teachers have expressed concerns about pupils running schools to suit themselves, at Allan's Primary school in Stirling headteacher Mairi Breen dismisses such fears. "It's not a matter of just doing what the pupils say or of the pupils running things, as some people seem to think. It's simply a matter of involving them," she explains.
Allan's developed its strategies last session as a result of its participation in research for the 1998 Gordon Cook Foundation report, Values, Education and the Rights of the Child.
"There was a definite impression that in a lot of cases pupil councils were a bit tokenistic," says Mrs Breen. "So, we decided to look at our own pupil council to see if we were being tokenistic. We decided we were."
This self-evaluation led the management team and the staff to look at ways to hand over more responsibility to the pupil council, which has two representatives from each class.
The first decision was for the headteacher to stop chairing the council, allowing two P7 pupils, elected within the council, to become chair and secretary. The pupils then organised both the agenda and the minutes for meetings, while Mrs Breen remained as a member in attendance.
The first issue to arise concerned the dining hall. Pupils felt the queues were too long (which could lead to carrying-on, as one pupil admitted) and the atmosphere was not conducive to a "happy eating time".
The pupils set up a personal and social development focus group and asked the depute head, the catering supervisor, the janitor and a dinner lady to join.
"Led by the children," says Mrs Breen, "we now have music in the dining hall, queues scheduled according to classes and we are looking at a swifter servery. We have what we call a terrific table every Friday where different pupils sit on soft seats with napkins, as in a restaurant, as a reward for their helpful behaviour, good manners and so on in the dining area. It's a positive behaviour strategy which was entirely the pupils' idea. And catering services supplies a special cake for them free."
The pupil council was encouraged not only to raise issues but also to suggest solutions. As a result, the council reported that pupils didn't like not being in attendance at parents' evenings. They surveyed the school and found that every pupil bar one wanted the opportunity to attend.
Now all pupils are invited to attend parent interviews if they wish. Staff feel this is very much a positive move, because not only can they pick up perceived problems from parents but pupils can raise issues too. It also provides an opportunity to praise the child in front of his or her parent(s).
With the restructuring of the pupil council, Mrs Breen decided to give fuller reports to its meetings, the same reports she gives to the school board.
"I mentioned a new nursery teacher was to be appointed and I took along the personal specification that was sent out to candidates. So they did a personal specification of their own, which was also sent out to the candidates.
"They also drew up two questions to be asked by the interview panel on their behalf. The questions related to strategies to be employed to consult children and to positive behaviour and self-esteem.
"The pupil chair and secretary, Stuart Semple and Aileen Buchanan (both now in Secondary 1 at Stirling High school), met the candidates coming for interview and showed them around the school.
"Based on their own personal specification, the council also drew up their own candidate assessment sheet, entirely their own idea and devising, with YesNo categories such as 'Asked questions about the school' and 'Treated us as responsible people'.
"After they escorted the candidates from the school, Stuart and Aileen gave the panel their feedback. They were briefed that we were looking for positives and they liked all candidates. But of the two they particularly liked we were obviously in agreement, as one of them got the post.
"They also knew that their biggest responsibility here was confidentiality. They could not discuss the candidates with any other pupils."
According to the pupil council, supply teachers usually do not understand how the house system works at Allan's. Nor do they understand that class representatives are meant to address their class before and after council meetings. So the council is now drawing up a welcome booklet for supply teachers to furnish them with the necesary information. The reverse side of this is that it is also drawing up a pupils' contract for supply teachers in which the pupils state what their responsibilities are in making supply teachers welcome to the school.
From the beginning of last session it became apparent to the management team that the pupils were more computer literate than the staff. As a result, depute headteacher Lindsey Howland appointed four of the more confident P7s as information and communications technology training officers and each was assigned to a member of staff whom they met during lunch breaks to teach them about the Internet and e-mail.
A computer club was formed and Allan's became the first primary in Stirling to have its own website, which the pupils update weekly. Club members then went one day a week for eight weeks to Riverside, Stirling's computer centre for education, and worked with teachers from other schools, providing them with handouts they had drawn up themselves and teaching them how to create a website.
"The pupils recently noticed that teachers were not using the digital camera as much as pupils, so they have drawn up teacher and pupil notes on this," says Ms Howland.
"They also want to video-conference with other primaries."
"Last session the school's toilets were pretty dire," says Mrs Breen. "The pupil council surveyed all the pupils on what they wanted done and they were given a budget of pound;2,000 from the school maintenance fund.
"They set up a meeting with the buildings inspector and discussed with him what they wanted.
"The toilets are to be painted in the colours chosen by the pupils and the art teacher is helping them to produce framed paintings to be hung there. Next term each child in the school will also decorate their own tile."
Sitting in on a pupil council meeting with Mrs Breen, it is obvious the pupils are serious, informed and fiscally responsible. She had just been handed an estimate for new flooring for the toilet which she presented to the council. "But that's half the budget!" was the immediate response.
Last session the school set up a playground committee with pupils, staff, parents and community representatives. With the help of the pupils' gardening club, they have established raised flower beds, which the club maintains, in the back playground. Now they are in the process of re-establishing the front playground which was used for years as a staff car park. New spaces have been found in nearby local government buildings for some cars.
Allan's has recently set up a pupil committee whose remit is to help run a healthy tuck shop and to persuade pupils of the benefits of a sound diet. At the moment the pupils are canvassing for parents to join the committee.
"All this impacts on the school development plan, on personal learning plans, on health education and on positive behaviour and ethos," says Mrs Breen.
"Pupils run and chair committees and select all the adults on them. They have been responsible and successful in every department. The staff feedback is very positive. If the ethos is high among the pupils, which it is, I think it's probably higher among the staff. It all impacts on teaching and learning and on behaviour."
Ms Howland agrees. "Pupil participation develops its own momentum," she says.
"In the nursery the children are consulted on what activities they want that week, what kind of stories they want and what resources they want.
"If a publisher's rep comes into the main school or the nursery, the children can see what's on offer.
"They have a significant impact and they are always involved in the decision making. We always ask pupils now before bringing in any resource."
WHAT THE STUDENTS SAY
Stuart Semple, Allan's Primary pupil council chair 1999-2000, now S1 Stirling High school
"Pupil councils depend on the teachers. If they're not going to listen there's no point.
"At Allan's they did listen and we had a significant impact. We definitely got things going over the playgrounds and the toilets.
"We learned how to handle a budget and were trusted a lot. Our views were respected and taken into account.
"At the high school I miss the involvement and the work. I'd like to get involved there too.
"Interviewing the candidates for the nursery post was really scary. We thought they might ask us questions we couldn't answer. But they didn't. I was nervous but I enjoyed it, because they were funny and we put each other at ease. It helped us realise that teachers are really human."
Aileen Buchanan, Allan's Primary pupil council secretary 1999-2000, now S1 Stirling High school "The pupil council made us feel a lot more confident and more prepared for high school and for life.
"I found it hard to take minutes but it was worthwhile, what we did with the dining room and everything. We had to brainstorm ideas about the long queues in a small hall, all the classes jumbled up. I think what we did here, putting in the music and the terrific table, and what we did in the playground, others can now enjoy too.
"I was nervous at the first playground meeting with adults, whether we'd get our points across. But we did.
"The biggest responsibility was showing the nursery candidates around. It was confidential. That was a real responsibility.
"It always feels happy here, even coming back to visit. It was always a happy place."