When Blue turned green
five years ago a Somerset comprehensive set its pupils a challenge - to turn the Blue School green. Today, it has an array of eco-friendly features, with children in charge of recycling, saving energy, transport policies and growing vegetables. But the biggest outcome is that it has re-invented the school council, which has 255 members - a sixth of its pupils - in 26 teams with real responsibility for management issues.
All pupils can be council members. They have an office and handle their own budget with money from school funds and their own fund-raising ventures, and they are largely left to run the show themselves. Children have set up working groups to decorate the school's toilets and combat vandalism. One team is managing the design and introduction of new seating around the campus. Another is helping the school's bid for "dyslexia friendly" status.
Students also have a big input into running the canteen and have written the school's transport plan.
The Blue School, an 11-18 comprehensive in Wells, has been declared outstanding by Ofsted. Steve Jackson, the head, says the council has played a big part in this success by boosting pupils' life and citizenship skills and giving them a sense of ownership.
"The council has grown spectacularly, and with that the positive impact has grown," he said. "We now have this organisation with lots of project teams and pupils leading, and I know little about what happens. And that's fine, because the result of me not knowing is that the children take more responsibility. They drive it, develop it and make it work."
It all started with a campaign by science teacher Neil Mantell to make the school environmentally friendly. He helped pupils to set up "green teams"
but curriculum demands left him little time for the project. His solution was to let them manage it.
Project teams have since expanded, with remits including healthy living, fundraising, a newspaper, gardening projects and an Africa link that has helped to build a school in Ghana. Pupils are all trained and hold weekly planning meetings, with support from two link teachers.
Teams have five-year plans and hold regular review meetings. Management, governance and finance support teams liaise with school management and ensure that there is integration with the school's development plan.
Susan Piers-Mantell, an educationist and former English teacher (and Mr Mantell's wife) has been instrumental in developing the Blue School's council as a self-sustaining organisation. She has introduced the system, called Learning to Lead, into three other Somerset schools.
The idea has also attracted national interest - MPs from the Commons education and skills select committee recently visited to examine its potential for active citizenship, and the scheme is being cited as an example of best practice in a study of school councils and pupil participation, commissioned by schools minister Lord Adonis.
As well as giving them responsibility, Mrs Piers-Mantell said pupils also learn teamwork, facilitation skills, agenda planning and minute-taking, group decision-making and budgeting.
"The capability of young people, if you give them the skills and tools to do things, is immense - and they need to learn how to do these things when they're at school, not when they have left," she said.