Where self-interest meets self-esteem

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Enterprise education can be a double-edged sword, but pupil councils can provide ashield against selfishness, says Ross Deuchar

The widening view of the role of enterprise in education in recent years has meant a move away from the "education for work" agenda to more of a "social entrepreneurship" model, which may be more readily and easily embraced by many teachers.

The Scottish Executive's response to the Determined To Succeed report in 2003 underlined the need for young people to recognise the contribution they can make to society and the economy. Thus, our schools face a dual expectation: to instil a drive towards cultural and moral improvement among our pupils, but also to ensure economic restoration for Scotland's future.

This means teachers have to reconcile two apparently competing agendas: ensuring that their pupils are able to become competitive and enterprising and, at the same time, develop civic-minded values.

Recent discussions with teachers and pupils in primary schools show that this task need not be too challenging, given a holistic view of enterprise.

While some schools may confine their approaches to isolated projects and business-related values, others may regard enterprise in education as being about a wider set of principles and practice, and involve pupils in decision-making throughout the school.

The most common vehicle for the expression of such pupil participation in these schools is undoubtedly via pupil councils. In many such schools, headteachers have talked to me about their perceived aims for the pupil council in terms of listening to the pupil voice, making pupils aware of the idea of pressure groups, illustrating to children that decisions can be reconsidered and debated, and enabling pupils to see change happening as a result of their own decisions.

Others see the pupil council as a way of developing pupils' political ideas or encouraging them to become involved in their local community and consider social issues.

Indeed, my recent visits to many primary school pupil councils have confirmed that this type of decision-making forum does, indeed, act as a very good vehicle for the expression of thoughtful and responsible citizenship. I have seen children engaged in many democratic processes, such as representing other pupils' views on issues arising from the playground, ranging from the need for more recreational games to the more challenging issues surrounding bullying.

I have also seen them discuss and debate other issues of great concern to the wider pupil population such as school dinners, the state of children's toilets, school fundraising, or the buying of new classroom resources.

Ideas are sometimes brought to pupil council meetings via pupil suggestion boxes or folders, or from topics raised during weekly "circle time" in class.

The council members are also involved in leading and chairing meetings, and debating issues of community improvement, ideas for new school policies and school rules and for helping disadvantaged or disabled pupils.

However, as well as providing opportunities for collective democratic decision-making, and for taking a proactive approach towards social and moral issues, some teachers also see the potential of the pupil council for developing individual enterprise, competitiveness and risk-taking. In one school, the head told me how she encourages pupils to discuss budgets and the feasibility of ideas and to bid for fairly large sums of money from other improvement groups and committees in the school and the local area to carry out these ideas.

While many pupils I spoke to regard the pupil council as a vehicle for improving the school and helping other people, others see it as a good means of getting their ideas listened to, getting jobs done on a budget or developing their confidence for future personal and work roles. It is clear, then, that the focus on individual determination, competition and enterprise need not be lost through a focus on democratic approaches to school improvement.

Throughout all of this, we must remember that there will always be some pupils, even at primary age, who will focus on individual gain - in the words of one head, the "cut-throat person". Others will be more focused on other people's needs.

Perhaps teachers need to encourage both of these sets of values, if schools are truly to represent a fully participative model of a democratic society.

Where a more holistic view of enterprise in education is taken, with opportunities for pupil participation and decision-making throughout the school via committees and associations such as pupil councils, it may be that civic values are more fully addressed and individual drive and ambition is also maintained. In such situations, self-interest may be reconciled with the development of morals and ethics in education, and pupils will become better prepared to undertake change in pursuit of personal and social justice. Vehicles such as pupil councils undoubtedly provide one promising way of encouraging our children to experience enterprise in its fullest sense.

Ross Deuchar is a lecturer in primary education at Strathclyde University.

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