Turn up the volume on student voice, campaigners urge

30th May 2014 at 01:00
They want pupils to have more power on governing bodies

Since the first reports of pupils being asked to rate their teachers and carry out job interviews began to emerge, student voice has become a highly controversial subject.

Now support is growing for the idea of offering young people a more powerful decision-making role on governing bodies, to give them a greater say in the "design of their own education".

At present, students in English schools can only become associate members of their governing body. They do not have full governor status and are blocked by law from voting on issues such as budget, admissions and discipline.

But Luke Shore, a board member of the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions, has called for schools to recognise the democratic rights of students in the decision-making processes of governing bodies.

"It is essential to give students the opportunity to voice their views on the design of their own education," said the 17-year-old student rights campaigner from Nottinghamshire, who has previously called for the creation of a national union for UK school pupils.

"The discourse is tailored to the needs of parents, or employers and the labour market. It is important that school students are recognised as the equal stakeholders they are. They need representation on a local level, too."

Governing boards in the Canadian province of Ontario have student trustees, who are given extensive powers similar to those of adult governors, including the right to suggest motions, access official resources and attend private meetings.

Although UK teaching unions have traditionally been wary of the student voice phenomenon, there are signs that more teachers are becoming open to the concept. At the NUT's annual conference in Brighton last month, delegates overwhelmingly backed a proposal for a new system of "alternative democratic governance" for schools, in which pupils could be given places on governing bodies.

The idea was put forward by Niparun Nessa, president of the union's Oldham branch. She told delegates about a 15-year-old pupil from the town who won a place on a national advisory group and went on to discuss the problems faced by disabled learners with government ministers.

"The point is, with the right pupils it can work," she said. "If government ministers can listen to a 15-year-old pupil, a board of governors can do, too."

Ms Nessa told TES this week that the idea of giving students a say in how schools were run had proved to be "a bit controversial" among branch members, but she insisted that a more democratic approach was needed. "We want people who know more about the school," she said. "We want mature, responsible students to get involved."

Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, said that allowing students to become full governors would require a change in the law, as the minimum age limit is 18. "Encouraging students to give more feedback would be really useful for governing bodies, but I don't think there's a need for them to become part of the governing body," she added.

Some student bodies already wield significant influence over the running of their educational establishment. Further education colleges are legally required to have at least one student governor. A report published last year by the Governors' Council of the Association of Colleges described this as a "special and unique role which needs to be nurtured" by institutions.

However, the report did acknowledge that "some colleges find the concept difficult and will need further support and persuasion about the benefits of having a strong student voice on the board".

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said that allowing students to observe and contribute to governors' discussions could bring significant benefits for schools. "They see things about the quality of teaching and behaviour that other governors wouldn't," he said. "But allowing students to take part in meetings about staff disciplinary procedures, for instance, would not be appropriate."

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