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Ruling classes?

Children in class

Student councils can only make an authentic contribution to school improvement if they operate in a truly democratic environment, says Bernard Trafford.

It's a curious thing how in one period a person can be regarded as a loony and in another a guru. I think I've been both.

In the 1990s, I was researching and writing about school councils, the process of democratising schools, and school management. I looked at how to ensure that all the members of a school feel valued as individual human beings; that they are treated fairly and with dignity whatever their age, status, background; and that their views are accorded respect.

Back then, that kind of thinking was considered dangerous. People like me were regarded as heretics, threatening to undermine the very fabric of school authority and discipline. How will we keep order, it was asked, if students can just do or say what they like?

Today, that kind of agenda is unlikely to rouse any but the most die-hard right-winger to complain about "political correctness gone mad". Now it is widely accepted that student voice is not just a valuable but a vital component in school improvement and makes a powerful contribution to learning and teaching.

How things change. Last September, as chair of School Councils UK, I shared a platform with such esteemed figures as education minister Lord Adonis and the Children's Commissioner at the launch of two important pieces of research into the beneficial effects of school councils.

One of the reports, School Councils - School Improvement, suggests that the braver schools can be in involving students in working on behaviour issues, observing teaching and learning, getting stuck into the very fabric of school and its work, the greater the benefits. (This is despite the teacher who, when asked if she'd like to join a pilot scheme of pupil-observers, retorted in outrage, "I'm not having a pupil watching me teach!" Hmm.)

In many ways, the argument has been won. Job done, then? Not quite.

Heart of school improvement

It is true that more and more schools are seeing the value of advanced uses of student voice. It moves beyond the old school council discussions of toilets or soggy chips in the canteen and gets into the heart of school improvement. It impresses Ofsted, too.

But there are pitfalls. In concentrating on these new, 'advanced' uses of student voice, schools can overlook the time-consuming business of trying to run a representative, elected school council efficiently, with agendas to produce and minutes to circulate. I've heard school leaders say: "We've done all that school council stuff. We want to move on."

Move on, by all means, but don't move away. There's a real danger that schools will get so engrossed in getting students beavering away on focus groups, behaviour panels and teaching and learning teams that they'll neglect the fundamental mechanism that engendered that sense of involvement - the elected school council.

If it is neglected, the processes of school improvement in which these students are engaged will become detached from the student body.

The school may be scrupulous in choosing (there's the catch) a good range of genders, cultures, backgrounds, abilities. It may be enlightened enough to get some tricky customers on to behaviour panels, to let them see that sometimes intractable problem from the other side.

But if those participants, however willing, aren't both validated by the school council and answerable to it (not just to the school's senior management), the school doesn't have a genuine student voice: it's just created a prefect or monitor system by another name, a slightly cynical system of harnessing the energies of the 'good guys'.

Confusion and frustration

The inescapable fact is that, where student voice has become a powerful contributor to school improvement, it has grown out of a burgeoning school democracy.

And that is where the weasel word creeps in. "School can't be a democracy," say fellow heads. "I'm responsible. I have to make the final decisions. If we talk about democracy, students will think they have the final say and that will lead to confusion and frustration because they can't have it."

I don't agree. Such colleagues worry too much about the use of the word, tip-toeing round it as they attempt to define the limits of the school council's powers, whether it can decide or merely advise. That's pretty arid ground, in truth.

What do we really think democracy is? Even in our national democracy, voters don't get to decide much. I don't think we should have troops in Iraq but we do. I loathe the notion of ID cards but they're coming. I can't change the situation, and my quinquennial vote doesn't seem much like power to me.

Notwithstanding my frustration, I still feel I live in a democracy. Not a perfect one. An infuriating one, indeed. But a democracy.

School democracy is much the same. It has little to do with power - or, at least, with decision-making - and everything to do with ethos, with the everyday life of the school, with the atmosphere in the corridors, and how students perceive their school and their lives in it. It's about the feel of the place, not about power-structures.

For a more precise definition of school democracy, here is one I wrote some years ago which still works for me. I described a democratic school as one in which there is:

  • a considerable degree of consultation

  • a right for individuals to speak their minds, whether or not they agree with the official or majority line of the school

  • an implication that the rights of the individual will be enshrined while at the same time being balanced with the needs of the community as a whole

  • the expectation of active participation by all those involved

Only recently have I come across Mary Parker Follett who wrote (in The New State as long ago as 1918) that: "Democracy is not a goal, it is a path; it is not attainment, but a process... When we grasp this and begin to live democracy, then only shall we have democracy." That's pretty good too.

Sense of belonging

Under those terms, I don't believe colleagues should be frightened of the word democratic. On the contrary, it's important to accept and use it.

When school democracy is good, it is visceral. Pupils feel deep down a sense of belonging; that the school is there for them; and that they have the opportunity - and, yes, the duty - to do what they can to make it better, for themselves and for others, for their peers and those who will follow.

School democracy is so beneficial because it is both a morally right and a pragmatic way of operating a school. New initiatives in pupil voice should only increase that benefit.

So, yes, let's push student voice. It's great. But let's make sure it grows out of real school democracy where everyone's voice is heard and respected, not just those in the room at the time.

Bernard Trafford is head of Wolverhampton Grammar School and chair of School Councils UK.

Further reading...

The report School Councils - School Improvement is available from www.schoolcouncils.org under resources/research and reports.

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