Representing student voice on school councils

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School councils can be useful when properly run, but more modern and inclusive ways are needed to fully represent the student voice.

‘Student Voice’ is now written into DCSF guidance. It is a recognised part of school inspections. It impacts on school development plans. It is even deemed to deserve initial capital letters. The attention given to students’ views is seemingly greater now than it has ever been before. It is perhaps ironic, then, that most schools still rely on the most traditional mechanism around for listening to students: the school council.

In 2007 research commissioned by School Councils UK reported that 97 to 98 per cent of schools have a school council.

School councils are firmly entrenched as the most popular way of giving students a chance to express themselves. Worrying, then, that at an annual conference of the English Secondary Students’ Association (ESSA) only 8 per cent of students thought that their school council was effective. Some have jumped on statistics such as this as evidence that school councils don’t work. It is ESSA’s belief, however, that the real problem lies not in the mechanism, but in the way it is realised in schools.

Many school councils are badly run. Whatever you think of the theory behind them, this is shown time and again in research and anecdotal evidence. One of the frst problems is that many school councils are organised, chaired and have their agendas set by adults. Any mechanism for getting students to make decisions surely has to reflect that ethos in its own procedures. It is difficult to see how students can engage with and take ownership of their school, its teaching and learning, its curriculum and its buildings when how, when and what they discuss is dictated to them.

Many school councils only discuss token issues. The same subjects seem to come up time and again, neatly summarised by a student recently as “premises, proms and pissers”. If schools want a pupil group to consider what colour the toilet walls are, they can ask for a ‘toilet wall colour consideration group’. If they want students to have a meaningful input into the school environment, they might like to take their views into account a little earlier.

Rather than ‘which colour would you like?’, how about ‘how would you design new toilets?’, or even ‘what is your top priority for change within school?’ If the toilets really need changing, the students will say so.

This sort of freedom in answering an open question is akin to anarchy in the eyes of some teachers. But ESSA’s contact with staff who have tried this more open approach has time and again produced the same report: ‘we were totally in agreement’; ‘they got straight to the heart of the problem’; ‘they suggested brilliant ideas I simply wouldn’t ever have thought of’.

Many school councils cannot enact anything on their own. This is usually related to the lack of a budget over which the council has control,  although it can also be tied up with senior management figures’ attitude to Student Voice. A budget for a school council is crucial for giving the council a sense that it matters. It is even more important, however, in encouraging the council to think outside the traditional parameters.

Student’s natural conservatism (frequently the result of many years of disappointment and indoctrination by the school system) only deepens when they are trying to factor unknown financial restraints into their discussions. It is a common refrain in such meetings: ‘there’s no point suggesting that; they’ll never find the money’. A budget of its own allows the council to make more informed decisions, and to take positive steps in implementing them.

Many school councils are exclusive. The traditional school council involves elected students meeting after school to debate an agenda. This model is entirely geared towards articulate, confident students with flexible arrangements for getting home. Frequently, these council members come from a small section of the student demographic, and this automatically disengages the majority of students.

Widening involvement to every student is a huge but necessary challenge. For the best ideas on doing this within the confines of a school council structure, the School Councils UK guidance is invaluable (see www.schoolcouncils.org.uk).

Current thinking appears to favour a much broader, more encompassing structure with separate year councils feeding into an overall council, assisted by issue-specific working groups of volunteers. This increases not only the size of the council but also the variety of issues it addresses.

However, even when these councils meet in school time (a statement in itself about the value the school places on its students’ views), it is still very challenging to find opportunities for less articulate and confident students.

Other mechanisms

To this end, ESSA has consistently championed the use of other mechanisms, which can support school councils and also widen the number of students involved. Student governors, students on interview panels and students as lesson observers are all alternative ways of broadening participation. Training in communication has proved highly successful, helping students to develop the skills and confidence to express their opinions.

However, the promotion of methods that allow students with non-verbal strengths to contribute is also important. ESSA believes that there are many ways for students to give their opinions which don’t involve verbal debate. For those who prefer to express themselves in writing, research panels can be an excellent way of producing reports with evidence, analysis and recommendations. For those who enjoy the arts, a new scheme in the Borough of Newham is exploring the use of drama as a Student Voice mechanism.

Working with alternative provision units in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, ESSA has found that peer-led schemes are highly effective. Most students in these schemes have a confrontational history with staff; trained peers understand them better and can connect with them much more easily. ESSA interns, volunteers from these units, have provided some invaluable insight into imaginative ways of gathering students’ views. For those who find images the most powerful tool, perhaps photographs of teaching and learning or school environments could be useful. A headteacher in the midlands recently asked his students to photograph everything they learnt in a day. His verdict? “I learnt more that day than I have from 10 years of lesson observations.”

In conclusion, it is important to note that ESSA is a wholehearted supporter of effective school councils. When properly run, along the lines detailed by School Councils UK, they can be powerful tools through which students can express their opinions about everything from teaching and learning to budget distribution.
 
However, ESSA is also keen to see alternative methods implemented as widely as possible for giving students a voice. This is the surest way of involving the broadest possible range of students, and creates a more powerful array of mechanisms through which they can enact positive change in their schools. So as well as the traditional forms of Student Voice, why don’t we try something radical?

Jack Lewars is a student support officer with the English Secondary Students’ Association.

Links
www.studentvoice.co.uk – English Secondary Students’ Association
www.schoolcouncils.org – School Councils UK

Taken from School Leadership Today (formerly Managing Schools Today).

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