Listen, it's a democracy

Pupils' councils can improve behaviour, motivation and enthusiasm, although there are no-go areas
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The Independent Online
Why should schools listen to their students? It is a pertinent question at a time when most teachers claim to be over-burdened by curriculum change and budget problems. A survey from the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) shows, however, that many schools give a high priority to including students' views in their decision-making processes.

Listening to what students have to say is worth the time and trouble, schools say, because it improves behaviour, motivation and enthusiasm and helps young people on their way to becoming citizens in a democracy.

One of the most popular ways of canvassing students' views is through an elected school council. ACE's survey, Children's Voices in School Matters, finds that half of the secondary schools and a seventh of the primary schools among the 171 that responded had a school council.

There is some difference of opinion about the age that young people should reach before becoming involved in their first experience of representative democracy. Some primary schools exclude the infants, and some secondaries confine council reps to the sixth form.

Almost without exception at schools with councils, representatives are elected, rather than selected by staff, and efforts are made in many cases to ensure that all sections of the school community are represented. In mixed schools, for instance, classes often have to elect a boy and a girl, and several schools say they would try to ensure that minority ethnic groups or pupils with special needs are not left out.

Structures, though, are only half the battle. As one disillusioned pupil says: "One of the problems with our council is that only small, insignificant topics are discussed." However, as another school warns, there are serious problems if students launch themselves into issues, such as the national curriculum or funding, over which staff and governors only have the most marginal control themselves. Either way lies potential disillusion for embryonic democrats.

In practice, ACE finds that most councils set their own agendas and a significant number allow items to be referred directly by other members of the school, so a genuine feel for what concerns students as a body is likely to emerge. Teachers are involved both as advisers and as the route by which issues and concerns are passed on to staff, and occasionally directly to governors. Some governors receive reports from school councils and some invite representatives to their meetings.

Some schools prefer to consult children and young people through assemblies, tutors and personal education time, mainly on the grounds that these forums involve everybody equally. In primary schools, "circle time", when children sit in a circle with the teacher, is a popular way of airing views and dealing with problems such as bullying. But the ACE research finds consistent evidence that there is less likely to be consultation and discussion in schools that have not set up councils.

The big issues that concern students remain much the same, regardless of how the school organises its consultation processes. Almost all respondents in the survey stated that they regularly involved students in discussion of the physical environment of the school, the playground, behaviour codes and bullying and harassment policies.

Where there are councils, issues such as uniform, after-school activities, equal opportunities and fund-raising also figure high on the agenda. Curriculum and budget discussions seldom involve students, though a few councils venture into these more difficult areas, especially where they concern plans for the development of the school.

But discussion is one thing, influencing policy is another. As one school put it succinctly, "they may make suggestions". In very few secondary schools, it seems, is uniform up for serious debate. Staff and governors generally insist that it is not negotiable.

It is not surprising, therefore, that students say their councils are little more than talking shops. As the ACE report states, councils can easily seem irrelevant if evidence of their activities is not seen and there is no give-and-take on aspects of school policy about which students feel strongly.

`Children's Voices in School Matters' is available from the Advisory Centre for Education, 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ.