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06 Jan 2017

More than replacing sports equipment; making student councils more effective

November 2012 began with the second of what turned out to be four Ofsted inspections that year at my school. Each one was a unique, stressful and terrifying experience comprising of late nights making lesson plans and early mornings printing a tree’s worth of resources. On this particular visit, the inspector dropped-into the student council session that I was running. Needless to say, I was not overjoyed at seeing said inspector as I had hoped that lunchtime would at least provide a small amount of breathing space.

The students were discussing what to spend a small allocation of the extra-curricular budget on. They were all relatively engaged and keen to debate the benefits of a ping-pong table vs. a new communal set of footballs and the inspector was happy enough with what she had seen. With a decision made and a table-tennis table purchased, all were happy enough with how the council conducted themselves.

The problem was that the council was nothing more than a box-ticking exercise. Students enjoyed the debates but they never gained anything substantial from them. The council did not help its members to understand politics better, it did not help them access the political world, it did not bring significant changes to the school and it did not markedly boost the career prospects of any of the members. Having helped your school to build a third ping-pong table is hardly something worth putting on your CV when attempting to become a special advisor to a cabinet minister.

The student council was underutilised and underappreciated in my school, it came into being to make the school look better in inspections. This does not have to be the case. Student councils have the potential to accelerate learning, increase engagement and even revitalise a school. Graham School in Scarborough provides a useful case study for this. It was graded as Inadequate and placed in Special Measures in 2014. At the centre of its revival was the creation of a Student Parliament, which had specific committees setup for separate areas such as ‘Behaviour and Safety’ and ‘Community Liaison’. The students participating became ‘influencing learners’ and took responsibility for improving education in the school themselves1. It was attributed as being the key change that brought the school out of special measures.

As Graham School experience, there are distinct pedagogical benefits to creating an effective student council. The NFER ‘Learner Engagement’ model demonstrates how involvement in setting the direction of education leads to higher learner engagement2. It has also been demonstrated that an effective student council is a pathway to creating positive, active learners throughout the school, who both support their education and want to take part in shaping it3. Unsurprisingly, it is becoming clear that effective student councils boost progress in schools.

With that in mind, here are three practical tips for making your student council more effective.

Tip 1 – Give your student council a difficult decision to make

Rather than asking students to pick the colours/types of pencil cases that can be given to their peers as rewards for good behaviour, ask them to come up with a solution to a question that staff are genuinely struggling with. This could, for example, involve having an input on the selection of a new school governor or member of staff. It could also involve council members taking part in shaping the school day; the amount of time devoted to different subjects and approaches to teaching. None of these questions can just be thrown to students; they will need to be framed carefully and accompanied by background information. They also involve handing some control over to students on serious school matters, which will depend on having a brave SLT. But in giving responsibility over an issue that has a real impact on staff and pupils, you are enabling students to become leaders in later life. You are also helping them to boost their future personal statements with significant school contributions.

Tip 2 – Vote on a live government petition

A difficulty with the learnings and experience pupils gain from a student council is that they are limited to the school sphere. A student council that doesn’t look at the external community and politics in the UK will not prepare pupils for decision-making outside the school environment. In order to address this, you could encourage the student council to pick a government petition to sign and then watch as it progresses through parliament. All open government petitions can be found here. The student council could look through the open petitions and come to an agreement on whether to sign one or launch their own. Then they can learn about the political system in the UK by watching it progress. This is a quick and straightforward taster for how political protest works in the UK.

Tip 3 – Use engaging resources to prompt active discourse

Finally, there are great resources that can be picked up by schools and used in combination with the student council to encourage a whole-school role in decision-making. Student councils do not need to be designed to offer sole benefits to their members, they can encourage engagement in the whole school. VotesforSchools for example, sets a weekly debate based on current affairs for all pupils to discuss in tutor time, PSHE lessons or assemblies. The topics are intended to be tangible, this week for example the debate concerns social integration and the local community. Students can debate this topic as a whole school and the student council can go away and decide what action to take following the results of the vote. In this week’s example, councils are encouraged to decide on a community-focused new year’s resolution, which all the school will adhere to.

As one of my year 12s wrote their personal statement for their university application in 2012, they included their student voice involvement in order to boost their prospects. She mentioned that she had helped to bring in one healthy option per day in the canteen as evidence of her leadership skills. I wished that she had been given the time and responsibility to write that she had worked with peers to consult on the appointment of the head of governors, to motivate the school to contact government about cuts to the NHS or that she had developed a community action plan after the school decided they needed to do more to help those who were disadvantaged in their community. Student councils are a tool to open up opportunities for real leadership and difficult decision-making which should not be missed.

 

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