Search International Hotels
A school council at Passmores academy in Essex, where student ideas were incorporated into designs for the new school. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
Supporters of student representation in schools should be pleased. While the Department for Education doesn't formally keep track of school council numbers, data suggests that at least 90% of schools now use them and more institutions are still signing up.
Student councils – where children are elected to formally represent their peers in school affairs – are a recent phenomenon. Most of them were created since 2000. The 2003 Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of the last government acted as an enormous spur to many schools, which had to show that they were aiming at five goals – goal number three was that children had to "make a positive contribution" to the life of the school. For most UK schools, that means a student council.
Under the coalition government, the official line doesn't mention student councils, but endorses them as a potential strategy. A DfE spokesperson says: "We want schools to consider the views of pupils on matters that affect them. Schools should determine for themselves the most effective way to do this."
Maggie Atkinson, the children's commissioner for England, says: "A school council is a formal method of taking young people's views into account ... This is not about putting children in charge. Rather, it is about listening to their concerns and using their experience as the main users of school services to make improvements."
And yet, in research for Atkinson's office by the National Foundation for Educational Research, just two-fifths of children thought school councils were an effective way of listening to their ideas, and a quarter did not.
Research produced in 2010 by the University of Edinburgh found that, while school councils were popular and common, there were problems with their design, execution and support that could undermine the whole point of the project. In Having a Say at School, researchers found that most councils had small or no budgets; only half of all members received any formal training to perform their roles; and actually being heard outside the council chamber was a significant obstacle.
"Regular and effective communication is cited as a common weakness between pupil councillors and their fellow students," researchers say.
Some students I spoke to agree. "Our school made a big fuss about it at the start of the year," says Caroline, a year 11 student in London, "but when they even bother to get us into a council meeting, no matter what we say, nothing happens. It's just a bit pointless." Does it make you want to get involved in local democracy later on in life? "No, not if it's like that."
Some teachers also view councils with cynicism. "School council elections are the worst face of democracy," says one teacher in Newcastle. "It's just a popularity contest, and the quiet, sensible ones get sidelined."
"I know it's important to listen to the students," says Arthur, head of English in a London school, "but there need to be clear lines where we acknowledge that adults are ultimately in charge. I sometimes wish that teachers in my school enjoyed as good representation as the school council."
The key is getting the balance right, says one school governor in Norwich. "Too many schools tick the boxes so they look like they're doing something for Ofsted, but the reality is merely lip-service. It teaches them learned helplessness. If they're given a chance to participate, but then that participation is hollow, it's corrosive – you dislocate kids from the idea that they can make a difference in their own lives."
Jane, a governor of a primary in Reading, agrees. "There's a very fine line to tread," she says. "On the one hand, councils have to be managed to some extent, or chaos ensues. On the other, there's no point in banging on about how it teaches the kids about democracy if the entire thing is stage-managed from start to finish, with kids being nominated but then being 'deselected' by the staff 'informally'."
Russell King, lead teacher in charge of student voice at Passmores academy, (featured recently in Channel 4's documentary Educating Essex) agrees these are pitfalls to avoid. "You need to actively give them business on which to have an influence," he says. His school has recently decanted into a brand new building. He shows me an entire catalogue of student ideas for the school redesign; ideas that were not merely pinned to a wall and forgotten, but absorbed into the design process, most notably the bathrooms, which are unisex, open-plan and have cubicles in house colours.
He also has a novel approach to elections: anonymous hustings. Instead of the normal beauty parade/friendship contest, he got all the candidates for the year councils to write down their views on paper, which were then distributed to their respective electorates, in an attempt to separate the personality from the politics. Couldn't the children just let slip who wrote what? "Of course," says King, "but it reduces the personal element. And any pupil committed enough to do that on a large scale is probably showing ingenuity and intelligence anyway. You can't escape it entirely."
And how does a council meeting avoid degenerating into a pie-fight about trivia, or bitching about teachers? "There has to be a facilitator present; someone who provides structure to the discussion, who can call a halt to slagging off teachers, but who is there to genuinely listen, take minutes, and report back. Also, the agenda of the meeting needs to involve other stakeholders in the school; so we set certain points they have to discuss, and after that they are free to discuss any points they want. The member of staff needs to capture the discussion appropriately, not just close down discussion."
So why are councils necessary? "It's important that people have a say in the way their lives are run – these individuals are policymakers in training. Treat a child like an adult, they act like an adult. We don't believe that top-down decision-making needs to happen at all levels."
While some schools support the use of student councils as laboratories of democracy, others still regard them as unwelcome guests at the table of power. Perhaps, with an eye to coalition politics, this isn't such an inappropriate metaphor.