Have you ever apologised to your school? I have. In the early days of my headship, I agreed for the Army to run a team-building day for Year 9. A motion was brought before the student council. It was an interesting one, criticising me not for bringing the Army in, as might have been expected, but for not making the most of the opportunity. I was asked to apologise to the school, and to the parents.
I complied because I was wrong. We should have provided opportunities for the children to speak to the young soldiers about going across the world, away from family and friends, to fight. To explore what that must feel like. To humanise the experience.
I believe that those of us who have significant power should be accountable to those we care for. That is what a true student council ensures. Among the other benefits, being part of such a council provides the chance to learn how to put forward views and to listen to those of others.
What do I mean by a “true” student council? At my school, St Christopher in Hertfordshire, the students have a great deal of power.
The school council includes councillors from each “company” (form group), together with a number of other senior pupils and staff. It meets about twice a term and its agenda includes motions or recommendations put forward by members of the school. Anyone can do this. Each council meeting is followed by a school meeting, where all senior school pupils and staff gather to ratify or reject decisions of council.
The power of veto
Among the issues that have been settled by council in the past decade or so have been the establishment of the pupil-run “coffee shop”, the setting up of a system to give grants to clubs and societies, and the banning of South African produce in the 1980s. Matters involving finance, health and safety or the curriculum are subject to recommendations, which generally the headteacher has been able to follow after consultation with parents or governors.
The headteacher can veto a proposal, but over the past 25 years a head of St Christopher has done this only four times: twice to delay changes to long-established school traditions (one being the school’s commitment to 100 per cent wholemeal bread) and twice on other matters (one being the prohibition of bare feet other than on the playing field). I have not needed to veto anything myself. To use it is, quite rightly, seen as a failure of the system. We have a long tradition of self-government. The idea of “student voice” may attract cynical comments from those who see it as either a sham or a time-consuming limitation on executive action. But here we take it seriously, and for good reason.
Sense of ‘community’
I believe that self-government is about more than council and school meetings. I feel it is about the relationship between freedom and responsibility.
We are all individuals and deserve to be celebrated as such. However, we are all part of many communities and we must recognise our responsibilities towards them.
We can do this by taking an interest in communities far away; we may even be able to assist them in ways that can make a difference to their lives.
However, we have responsibilities to more immediate groups, too. Our year group, family, friends, school and local area can all be affected by our actions – for bad and for good – and we need to acknowledge our duties towards these environments and the people with whom we share them.
Council and school meetings are vital in ensuring that we all feel we belong, that we are all valued and that we can all make a contribution. Self-government is important in holding me to account. I am happy to be accountable to the pupils here because I trust and respect them and I feel they trust and respect me.
Does it always run smoothly? Not quite. A vote on “Should the school day end at 2.50pm?” had been proposed in our pupils’ school council. Having been discussed and approved by council, it went to a meeting of the whole senior school held in our theatre. For students at school until 3.55pm every day, the motion looked attractive. They would get to go home early, it would match home times for friends at local schools and they would have more time for hobbies. To make it work, they proposed cutting break time and shortening the “moving time” between lessons.
As the debate progressed, I began to feel this might be the one time I would have to use my veto. But then a Year 7 boy piped up. He argued that he had just left a school where he had to rush between lessons and had short breaks. He liked the more balanced day at St Christopher; it was less stressful.
Gradually the children started reconsidering and then agreeing with him. The motion was ultimately dismissed. My veto remained unused.
Richard Palmer, pictured left, is headteacher at St Christopher School, a co-educational all-through independent school in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire