The subject of pupil voice and democracy in our schools is a very interesting one. All too frequently, School Councils are established to give young people a voice, only for them to find that their voice is cast aside or ignored, which is hardly encouraging for future involvement in a democratic process.
The Guardian had an article in the newspaper yesterday about this very subject, outlining the pitfalls of involving student voices and innovative ways of making these councils work.
3Di Associates advocates a variety of ways that pupils can express their views and be engaged in the decisions taken in school that go well beyond the involvement of the few elected people that are on a school council.
When school councils work well and when the students are given some autonomy, including a small budget, they feel empowered, and can make a significant contribution whilst also learning about the democratic process.
However, as the article points out, there are situations when a school council becomes lip service for student voice – with no real power or purpose in the decision making process.
The University of Edinburgh’s “Having a Say at School” report of 2010 found that many school councils had no budget, no training and no real voice. The National Foundation for Educational Research discovered that 25% of pupils thought that their school council was not an effective way of listening and responding to their ideas.
This is not good news.
Children and young people can feel very alienated by not having a voice but this feeling can pale into insignificance compared with young people who have been told that they do have a voice, only to find that their views are never acted upon.
A few years ago, we went to speak to some students at the King’s Fund about the delivery and development of Sex and Relationship Education. The young people were exasperated by their continual attempts to ask for changes to the curriculum to accommodate their needs, only to find that there was a lack of will by individual institutions to implement their ideas, despite the legal requirements for them to do so, and despite the agenda at the time – Every Child Matters – making it quite explicit what sort of relationship education these young people were entitled to.
Another problem with school councils is that they can end up being an election of the most popular pupil rather than the one who would actually be the most effective Councillor.
At the academy recently seen on “Educating Essex” (Channel 4) the head teacher developed a system whereby there were anonymous hustings. The pupils who wished to stand for election had to submit a written ‘manifesto’ that was anonymous, thus removing the politics of personality.
It seems such an obvious thing to do but how many elections have taken place in schools in this manner?
A decent school council does not have powers to overturn the views of the managers and/or governors of the school, but it can make a significant contribution. A well-run and active school council can take responsibility of managing certain things in a school, for example the quality and consumption of school meals, the management and funding of playground activities or the development of a school library/ICT suite.
All of these issues will ultimately need the involvement of staff but as facilitators rather than organisers and decision makers.
The most effective ways of developing a school council involve having class councils as well. In this way, every child is involved in the decision making process and can also understand how democratically elected systems can work, and where their voice can be heard.
As we recently stated in a blog, there are some examples of how all pupils can make a significant contribution to the running of the school.
At the Kinokuni Children’s Village School that we recently visited, the entire school meets once a week, and every child has the same ‘weight’ of vote as every member of staff. This egalitarian system is possible, even in the biggest of schools, with careful planning.
So what are the positives of such democracy and decision making?
Ownership is empowering, as is having a sense of responsibility. It is part of that personal intelligence axis; feeling the delight of shared interests and collective work, whilst also feeling a personal pleasure in a decision or an activity that you know you have played a role in making happen.
If children and young people feel as though their voice is being heard, they are going to be more engaged in school and in their learning. If they feel that their voice is being listened to, and that they can see the impact of their considered views, then they are going to develop greater respect and set of shared values within the school.
It makes sense for a conducive and cooperative environment.
We complain and worry about the diminishing interest in politics in this country. We are concerned about the decreasing number of people who exercise their right to vote. Our future is in the hands of these young decision-makers and the sooner we engage them in a positive electoral system where they can see the difference that can be made by joint-working, responsible debating and careful collaboration, then so much the better.
3Di Associates provide training on how to get the most out of pupil involvement and student voice.
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