Still waiting for the vote

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Research in Scottish secondaries shows that school democracy is facing severe teething problems, says Iain Mills

IT was always going to be a somewhat painful business - democratising schools. Scotland's secondary schools have traditionally tended to be authoritarian in character, so it would perhaps have been surprising if moves towards involving pupils in meaningful decision-making had not been prone to teething troubles.

The impetus for change has been developing for some time, from the UN Charter on Children's Rights and Agenda 21 to the growing interest in citizenship in Britain and elsewhere. The Standards in Scotland's Schools 2000 Act gave an extra push towards greater pupil consultation and involvement. All this requires much more than setting up a school council.

Research I have carried out in eight Scottish secondary schools has confirmed that teething troubles require more than just cosmetic dentistry.

Schools have made huge advances in involving pupils in a range of experiences and activities, and should be commended for their efforts.

Numerous imaginative initiatives have created real opportunities for pupils wishing to broaden their experience, from buddying and mentoring to charity fund-raising and senior pupils working with primary schools.

Pupil responses to these opportunities have been positive and appreciative.

However, evidence from the secondary schools studied suggests that most schools need to go that extra distance towards actively involving pupils in genuine decision-making. School councils and committees may be in place, but "letting go" has often proved to be a step too far. Deep-seated fears about losing control or being challenged may play a part in this, though there is no reason why a democratic school should be one where discipline is weak (and there is some evidence to suggest that democratising may improve discipline).

More practical considerations seem to play at least as significant a part in hindering progress. In the schools studied, a combination of factors meant that further moves towards involving pupils ran the risk of being unfocused and unproductive. Senior management workloads allowed insufficient time to be devoted to initiating and maintaining structures that would facilitate greater involvement, and made it unlikely that an overall strategy could be fully formulated. Lack of staff and pupil training meant that key players were often unready for the roles thrust on them.

Communication systems had not always been firmly embedded, and discrepancies between primary and secondary school methodologies - such as in relation to the nature of participative discussion prior to council meetings - sometimes led to hiatus rather than continuity.

There is convincing evidence that senior pupils - while valuing much that schools are doing for them - are disillusioned with the opportunities for decision-making available to them, given their raised expectations.

Although an encouragingly high percentage took part in activities outside the formal curriculum, the nature of involvement was described by one pupil as "donkey work": they were "helping out with" rather than "taking responsibility for or making decisions about" activities . Tasks included taking primary pupils round on induction days or giving out leaflets at parents' evenings.

If we want schools to take that extra step. this will not necessarily be good news for senior managers who currently feel as if they are juggling a greater number of priorities than ever before. Successful involvement of pupils in democratic practices requires time, funding and sound advice, all of which can often be in short supply. "Citizenship" will remain an idea rather than an achievable reality if the means to support it are not put in place.

AN education for citizenship co-ordinator - a member of the senior management team with this as a central part of their remit - could play a key role in promoting coherence and offering vision as well as practical support. A cross-sectoral role could ensure systematic nurturing of practices and approaches from P1 (or earlier) to S6. Time to reflect and plan could lead to more effective and inclusive practices being developed, from the election of representatives to the use of more reliable means to collect or disseminate information relating to meetings.

A cross-curricular remit would allow links between areas such as citizenship and enterprise education to be developed more coherently and effectively, and the role of ICT in enhancing participation could also be explored. Young people today are skilled in accessing and sending information using a variety of electronic media, and experiments such as the setting up of an internal online chatroom - allowing pupils to raise questions with senior management - should be pursued.

I have no doubt that Scotland's schools can overcome their teething troubles and take forward the process of democratisation, and that a widening range of opportunities for meaningful decision-making by pupils can be created. I am equally certain that most pupils will respond positively to these opportunities. However, progress in this area will not "just happen".

Developing the skills and the values in pupils that will allow them to engage productively in democratic decision-making requires coherent systems and structures, well-prepared pupils and teachers and time for senior managers to reflect, explore and inspire. If schools are to "let go", they must have confidence in where they are heading, a confidence that will grow through sharing experiences, receiving constructive advice and knowing that they have the resources to do the job properly.

Iain Mills is quality development officer with Inverclyde Council Education Services and was formerly in Glasgow University's education faculty.

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