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Message from the pupils

Message from the pupils

The new association for secondary students is starting to find its feet and flex its muscles. Simon Harvey talks to its founder about curriculum change, school councils and other priorities.

The newly-formed English Secondary Students' Association (ESSA) has moved into offices at London Bridge just a stone's throw from Parliament - and they intend to be regular visitors.

It's been a hectic six months for the organisation which was officially launched in February this year at an inaugural conference at the Trades Union Congress. But ESSA will be ready to flex its muscles when a full-time national coordinator and development officer take up their posts in September.

"We will lobbying the government, talking to decision-makers and attending events," said the organisation's founder Rajeeb Day.

"One possible parliamentary issue is the curriculum reform proposals. We also want to offer guidance on the level of pupil involvement in the decision-making process in schools.

"Other than that, we're very keen to respond to legislative matters and to make the student voice heard on educational issues."

ESSA's birth coincided with the appointment of England's first children's commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green who took up the full-time post as children's champion in July.

But ESSA has been much longer in the planning. Rajeeb, who is just about to start his second year of an economics and management degree at Jesus College, Oxford, founded the organisation in 2003.

"I had the idea because although my schooling was a very pleasant experience and I enjoyed going every day, I realised that wasn't the experience for all," says Rajeeb.

"I saw there was some very good work being carried out by student bodies in the rest of Europe, especially in Finland, looking at student stress, and I realised we had no student body here."

Other European countries have had national student representative bodies in place for some time and the umbrella organisation, the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU) has been in existence since 1975.

Rajeeb's pioneering efforts have paved the way for hiring the first two full-time staff which should leave him free to pursue his own studies.

Power to the pupils

The idea is that ESSA should be the representative body for secondary students in England. It will have a dual role in providing training, guidance and advice to empower students and equip them with skills needed to become actively involved in the decision-making process in their own school community.

A second strand will be to work in partnership with other organisations to bring the views of students on specific educational issues to the attention of local and national policy-makers.

"In the light of discussions on the Tomlinson report and the role of students in Ofsted inspections, it's about time that the views of students are taken into account, before sweeping changes are made to the education system," Rajeeb continues.

"Also, with the emphasis on personalised learning, students need to contribute in order to make this a reality. Students don't want to be consulted on policies after they've been shaped and formed. We want to work in partnership with policy-makers to determine the agenda.

"This means on-going discussion between student representatives and policy-makers, not just occasional calls for consultation on a pre-determined agenda. Students are at the heart of education and their opinions should be central to shaping educational structures and practices."

About 200 students from across England attended the launch in London to determine the key issues of concern and the type of services they would like to see from ESSA.

Issues raised included drugs education and school councils. Using an interactive voting system at the launch, students indicated that:

  • education and counselling, not random drugs testing, was the best way to tackle a drugs problem in school (56 per cent)

  • school councils were not tackling the issues that students care about most (53 per cent)

"Participation and responsible action are important elements of citizenship education which is compulsory in our state schools. But the problem is that most schools don't know how to make the participation and action real," says Rajeeb.

"If we can provide a facility for the voice of secondary students to be heard and their rights addressed, we can engage the student population at a younger age and promote active participation of people in society."

The 18 newly-elected council members will sit as national representatives for a year and are required to attend five meetings during that time.

Impact on schools

By the end of this year Rajeeb fully expects schools and school leaders to be feeling the positive impact of ESSA.

"I hope that greater engagement will lead to better citizenship and attainment and that should reduce the burden on schools and their leaders, not increase it.

"A greater dialogue and relationship should lead to school improvement. Children developing new skills has got to be useful for school leaders."

But are there not dangers that this will raise students' expectations too high and encourage unrealistic demands?

"I believe students have the maturity to know what can be achieved and how their learning can be improved. Even if something cannot be delivered there is a real benefit in school leaders explaining to students why it can't be done. I think these types of fears have been used an as excuse for not consulting with students in the past."

An ESSA training package, Confidence in Communication, was launched on 25 July at an event staged by the Children's Rights Alliance for England. ESSA is also undertaking consultation work for the QCA in English 21 to find out what students think about the subject in terms of content and assessment.

"It feels like we've done a lot of work in a very short period of time and it's very exciting to see it all coming together. I believe that with regional representation we can reach out to students in every secondary school in England by the end of the year."

The establishment of a body to represent the student voice has been widely supported and ESSA has forged links with SHA, NUT, ATL, DfES Innovation Unit, NUS, TUC, British Youth Council and NCSL.

Critics may remain cynical about greater representation for students and their ability to contribute to the running of a school.

But ESSA represents the first opportunity for students in England to have a national platform from which to make their collective voices heard. Only time will tell how effective it will be in changing the system.

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