The DCSF have articulated a view that every school should have a student council. Here we discuss whether this is a good idea and whether it actually supports the drive to involve students in meaningful activity?

Student council

The argument for having student councils is that they enable students to have a voice on key issues. In the best examples they are run by, and for, students with little or no staff involvement. They are given a budget and engage in meaningful discussions with their peers before representing these views to teaching staff. All too often, however, this is not the case. The council can become the remit of a select few who are not representative of the student body and debate rarely gets beyond school uniform, lunch and mobile phones.

Student voice options

It is my belief that students are incredibly perceptive and offer a unique insight to the life of the school that should not be ignored. There is therefore a compelling reason and clear need to engage in regular dialogue with students ensuring that they reflect on areas of real significance. The key question is how this should be done if not through a formal student council? What follow are some approaches adopted in our school that may be of interest.

1. Department reviews
Each department is reviewed every two years and the process is quite intense. A two-day programme is planned that involves a range of self-evaluation strategies including lesson observations, learning walks, work scrutiny, leadership and management interview, as well as a student focus group. The student survey usually involves a range of students to represent a particular key stage with two keys stages being covered. The starter questions are:

  • What supports their learning in the subject?
  • What hinders their learning in the subject?
  • What would they like to see improved?

It has been our experience that students participate with a high degree of professionalism and adopt a very mature and responsible approach. A senior member of staff manages the focus group and they are responsible for writing this aspect of the report and the subsequent action points for improvement. In nearly all cases this section of the report could be used as a summary document for the review, as it accurately depicts the department. Staff confidence in the process has increased as staff have gradually been exposed to the student views and recognise these as valid contributions to the improvement agenda.

2. 10-second surveys
As is the case in many other schools, we have a history of using student questionnaires as a means of gathering views. Some of the problems associated with these are:

  • the time involved in data crunching a number of responses

  • planning an effective response to the wide range of issues raised.

Students made it clear that they had lost confidence in the system as, ‘nothing ever changes’, therefore we decided to take a new approach. We now carry out 10-second surveys every two weeks. This involves one key question requiring a ‘yes/no’ response followed by an open section for additional comments. Each tutor group completes this before returning it to a senior member of staff. Form tutors report that they are easy to administer and senior leaders indicate that the data crunching is minimal and not time consuming.

In ensuring that a response is made to students, displays have been developed on a traffic light theme:

(Red) We asked you…(Amber) You told us …

(Green) We did …

Feedback from students indicates a high degree of satisfaction with the quick turnaround in response from staff and the fact that decisions are made. This strategy has now been extended with students being responsible for identifying the key question with areas being covered such as the value of planners, attendance and how ‘green’ the school is.

3. Online questionnaire
This is a relatively new venture for our school and has been an attempt to engage a high number of students whilst minimising the time consuming aspect of the data analysis. We have recently trialled a commercially available online questionnaire that is available to schools. It is easy to set up, populate the questionnaire and students found it very easy to navigate. The package formulates the final report for you immediately therefore you save huge amounts of time. Responses from students have been very positive even when we have used this method in years 5 and 6. The next step is to use this approach with parents, as it is possible to email the URL link and then for recipients to go straight to the questionnaire. This has been shared with some of our professional support staff (who are also parents of students in school) and they have found it very useful and easy to access. Another option is to place a link on the school website for parents to access.

It is true that engaging students in meaningful discussion can take time, but our experience is that it is vital. We currently operate without a formal student council, however, we feel that there are a variety of forums for students to voice their opinions on a range of issues that are pertinent to them. That is what is important if students are to feel valued and part of the school.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland