The race for poll position

19th May 2000 at 01:00
For those who harbour ambitions of being a prefect, the battle for votes is under way. Alison Brace and Steve Hook report

IF you thought election fever was over, then think again. London may have a new mayor and local councils a new set of members, but now it is the turn of schools to dust down the ballot boxes.

Short-lists are being drawn up for next year's prefects and the popular and ambitious are lining up to contest the top slot of head boy or girl.

"We have an identical ballot box to the ones used in parliamentary elections," said Brian Pickard, head of Bishop Stopford's school, a Church of England comprehensive in the London borough of Enfield, where prefects wear gowns for morning prayers and other special occasions.

Pupils cast their vote for head boy and girl, and their deputies, while the head appoints two further senior prefects. Some 40 prefects are chosen by the school's six houses. "It is very dignified. Because we take it seriously, and the pupils can see a sense of stability, order and tradition, they tend to enter into the spirit of it," said Mr Pickard.

Many schools, though, have long since scrapped the prefect system, viewing it as hierarchical and dated. They have replaced prefects with a school council.

The 1,612-pupil Southgate school, also in Enfield, invites volunteers from all years to join the council, which meets with headteacher Peter Hudson once a month.

Janet Wallace, head of Haverstock school, Camden, an 11-to-18 comprehensive, said: "I think the word prefect is a controversial term. I don't like it. It is good for young people to learn to take responsibility but I try to encourage tht to happen in a different way.

"We have a student council with two representatives from each class. They are not involved in looking after discipline. I don't think that, culturally, the other children would respond too well to that."

The student council at Haverstock was recently involved in interviewing candidates to replace Ms Wallace, who leaves the school in July to become an educational consultant.

But any school thinking of re-introducing prefects need look no further than Harrow for a model of the traditional system. At the pound;15,900-a-year boys' school, prefects - known as monitors - are famously top-hatted.

"Many of the duties are pretty mundane chores," said Ross Beckett, who is the under master responsible for training the monitors - all chosen by staff. Duties include stewarding, maintaining good discipline and checking that boys are properly dressed. The head boy, who keeps the whole team in order, meets with the monitors' committee every morning.

"Being a prefect is not about just shouting, stomping feet and bossing people around. It's all about responsibility and treating people with respect," said Mr Beckett.

This is a sentiment shared by the Girls' Day School Trust, which hosts an annual conference for the head girls of its 25 fee-paying schools, aimed at honing leadership and teamwork skills.

"These are girls who are likely to be leaders and managers in the future," said Barbara Harrison, who organises the conference. "The intention is to take girls who are at the top of the tree in school and and provide them with an opportunity to meet with their peers and be appropriately challenged."

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