School councils are becoming more influential in primaries. Neil Short discusses the implications and shares examples of just how far children can go in leading their own learning

On 25 March an article appeared in The Independent newspaper under the headline ‘Pupil power: the children who chose their own head’. The article concerned the involvement of primary age pupils in the interview process leading to the appointment of a new headteacher at their school. This practice, which is becoming increasingly common, highlights the growing involvement of pupils in strategic developments within their school. Warwick Mansell, the author of the article in The Independent, noted that this process was part of a trend which seeks to involve the educated as well as their educators in decisions affecting everyone in the school. The vehicle for this process, one which gives the pupil their voice, is generally the school council.

In the past 10 years I have visited several hundred schools of all phases throughout the country. In virtually all of these schools there has been a photographic display of the school council. Here are displayed a number of pupils/students who are elected or chosen to represent the views of their peers. There is a charity devoted to school councils and the Innovation Unit has produced a number of guidance handbooks in order to increase the effectiveness of these bodies and provide a real impetus to the role of the pupil/student in influencing the future direction of their school.

Giving children a voice
But how realistic are these aims and how can pupils as young as seven be trusted to make the right decisions concerning their future and that of their friends in schools? What leadership/strategic decisions can the primary age pupil be expected to make and how will these be carried out? In this article we will examine the developments behind the growth of pupil voice within the primary school and illustrate with examples from personal contact with pupils and teachers.

In an article entitled ‘Why Pupil Voice’ David Jackson, director of the Networked Learning Group at the National College when the article was published, proffered his reasons for the importance of pupil voice:

  • Educational values: students are people who matter in school.
  • Community values: whose school is it?
  • Rights: students are a significant voice in schools
  • Social responsibilities: young people have rights and responsibilities enshrined in international law
  • Legitimacy: the authenticity of student perspectives about learning and the school community
  • Pragmatics: if students are not allowed to change what they do, then we will never transform learning

Later in the article he spoke of the need to allow pupils to utilise the areas identified above in order to take a lead at a school level through their involvement in school and community developments.

School councils in action
In 2002 I undertook some school-based research on behalf of the National College. As a prelude to what later became learning-centred leadership, I was asked to visit a number of schools across the country, all of which had demonstrated one aspect of the elements of the programme. One of these schools was based in Hertfordshire and they wished to focus upon their work in involving pupils more actively in the life of the school. Prior to the visit I had been informed how the school council had a reputation for their work and had been invited to speak at a headteacher conference and also to Ofsted. Once at the school I was met by members of the school council and treated to an overhead projector (well, it was 2002!) presentation similar to the one they had delivered to more august bodies. In the presentation, views on their role in school and how they operated were put forward with confidence and knowledge. Even the youngest members answered questions to the group skilfully. It was a very impressive demonstration.

I then spoke to the headteacher, who provided further insights into the work of the school council. For example: a fee for their involvement in the conferences mentioned above had been negotiated and agreed by members of the council with the respective organisers. Members of the council were given the opportunity to report to the governing body and to welcome their representatives to council meetings. A guidance book was made available to pupils giving the background to the work of the school council and simple instructions relating to the procedures to be followed before, during and after meetings. The role of the link teacher was also included. There was within this document a ‘pupil perspective on leadership and management’. Here, within a hierarchical structure, the school council occupied a place alongside the senior management team and the Friends of the School and above teachers and support staff. I was unable to ascertain the views of the teachers as to this apparent diminution of their influence, but their reaction can be reasonably accurately guessed!

Sharing good practice
There is a great deal of material available on the internet to help promote pupil voice and the work of school councils. There are many newspaper articles highlighting good practice in schools across the country and providing specific examples which deal with the benefits to be gained from greater pupil participation. This was more apparent in the middle years of the last decade after the Every Child Matters agenda required children to make a ‘positive contribution’. A revised Ofsted framework also incorporated the notion of pupil voice within the inspection process.

Other articles with a specific focus on a single aspect of pupil voice are able to demonstrate what was possible for the primary school and the potential benefits to be gained at a strategic level. A case study from a school in Manchester show how pupil voice can be utilised to provide evidence for self-evaluation. Here, pupils were asked how specific support strategies were impacting upon their life at school. A series of questions were asked about enjoyment, safety, health, participation, standards and suggestions. Outcomes of the interviews, which were conducted by governors after some initial training, were then shared with teachers and further actions to benefit the school were agreed.

Taking it further
I wanted to see some ‘live’ examples of pupil voice in action and was able to arrange visits to three schools in the East Midlands. All were primary schools of medium size. In each of the schools children were elected to the school council and in one the candidates had to provide information as to the personal qualities they would bring to the it. Information regarding the council was presented to the children prior to the elections via assemblies and through PSHE/SEAL activities. One of the heads noted that there was a difficulty within their school in ensuring that the same children were not re-elected, and admitted that this had created some problems in the past in not allowing others the opportunity to participate. Other schools mentioned this was not a specific problem; indeed, one indicated that children were not allowed to stand for a second year. Meetings were usually held weekly, with suggestions being sent by children in school to stimulate discussion and to provide a focus for the work to be undertaken in school.

Two of the schools provided small sums of money for use by the council, with the proviso that they could organise a range of events in order to raise additional funds. A wide range of different events were mentioned: sponsored events, dress-down days, bring and buy sales and stalls at Christmas/summer fairs. Funds were then targeted towards the needs of children agreed through the whole school. As one headteacher noted: ‘When I see a school council member with a notebook, I know it is going to cost me money.’

The range of materials purchased tended to be those which children would be using outside the classroom, with playground games and equipment, toys and bird boxes among those mentioned. Children had also raised funds to renovate cycle sheds in two schools. Two of the schools had built ‘Trim Trails’ and in one case this had meant negotiation with the contractors over the design and development. These negotiating skills were also used when negotiations were held with PTA members who were persuaded to match the funds raised by the children for specific projects.

Within the school buildings, children in one school wished to have blinds for classrooms and lockers for clothes and equipment and funds were raised to provide these items. In another school, the choice of colours for carpets and toilets were also the responsibility of the school council, indicating their real involvement and tangible benefits for the children.

At all three schools, the councillors spoke of their involvement in activities to strengthen the ECO attitude among other children following visits to a local centre. In each of the schools there had been an involvement of the school council in the appointment of staff. In one school, council members formed part of a carousel arrangement in the appointment of two teachers. In the other schools, members had participated in the appointment of the headteacher by holding their own interviews and then reporting back to the governors on their findings.

When interviewed council members spoke of their pride in being councillors: ‘It is an important job – you get to improve the school,’ said one. ‘It is good to have a school council. We can put our minds to it and think what kids want – adults find it harder,’ said another. There was also a high degree of pride in their achievements: ‘Best thing was watching the ribbon being cut on the Trim Trail as we had designed it with the company.’ There were also personal benefits: ‘I used to be shy, but now have more confidence to put ideas forward.’

This last comment and the sentiment behind it reminded me of a visit to another school several years ago, when school council members were engaged in choosing colours for the refurbished toilets. They were making a contribution to school life which they would certainly remember long after their grades in KS2 SATS were forgotten.

Pupil voice and accountability
The examples outlined above are too small a sample to make a definitive summary on the role that pupil voice is playing in primary schools. Since those visits were made, I have seen two other examples, including one where a new headteacher coming into a school made developing the school council the first priority, recognising that this was one way to raise the self-esteem of pupils within the school. Evidence from teachers in the school indicated that this had been a very productive approach, but also raises an interesting question, one which had previously been mentioned by a head from one of the three schools. Their view was that it was perhaps easier to establish, develop and encourage the role of the school council and thus the pupil voice where the establishment was secure academically in the judgements of Ofsted or the local authority. Staff in the other schools surveyed tended to agree with this view. If, however, the Ofsted framework is judging the school on the involvement of the children, then surely this too has to become a priority and any work undertaken to enhance the profile of pupil voice could be very beneficial.

And finally
Evidence both from published materials and from the very brief study undertaken indicates that pupil voice is here to stay. The extent to which pupils are able to use that voice in the future direction of the school is still open to debate and the potential of using their individual and collective voice to determine their own learning will be discussed in an article in the next issue of Primary Headship.