Students are an integral and essential part of schooling. They are the focus of what education should be about. This is often overlooked. Too often we talk of, and about, students. Frequently this conversation takes place between teachers. Sometimes parents are involved. Rarely are primary school students included in negotiations that focus on their school and schooling.
In a modern educational context, it is inappropriate to overlook or ignore student input into school leadership and management issues. Equally, and at primary school level, it may be overly ambitious to suggest that students should be elected to positions on school councils.
Price (1991:84) reminds educators that ‘the world in which students of today live and are educated is vastly different from that in which their parents and teachers lived when they attended school. Schools have an undeniable responsibility to develop in students the skills, knowledge and attitudes which will prepare them to be critically aware participants in the world’.
An element of critical awareness is that of developing in young people the decision-making and leadership skills they will need as adults.
Maurice Balson makes some relevant points on the issue of student empowerment. He states that traditionally autocratic society reflected in schools of yesteryear, has been replaced by a democratic social system, with an emphasis on social equality (1992: 1-3). He wrote that while there ‘is no suggestion that students are as wise, experienced or knowledgeable as their teachers . . . they do have a right to self-determination’ (op cit: 3).
He added that relationships challenges within schools are accentuated ‘because teachers are not skilled in democratic relationships’ (op cit: 7).
If respect for students is shown, then their commitment to the school will be enhanced. With staff and parents, they can join the school community partnership. A partnership exclusive of students may be tantamount to deliberate deprivation. Student frustration may be the result and the school and its parent community could be disadvantaged.
Student participation in schools
Roger Holdsworth is known as a leader in the field of student participation in schools. He maintains that:’students have a right to participate in decisions that affect their lives . . . student participation leads to more effective decision-making and learning: better decisions are made when participants share in making those decisions. Student participation provides challenges for schools. The active participation of students can be reflected in the organisational structure and health of the school . . . [engaging] students in real initiatives with productive outcomes’ (1995: pp.2, 3).
Involving students in their own education should be a paramount consideration. Allowing and encouraging students to participate in direction setting confirms the importance children as participants in decision making. Caring, sharing, problem solving and celebration then become mutually inclusive experiences.
Primary students have a lot to offer
It is not good enough that teachers and parents make decisions for students: we ought to take decisions with students. Doing things better should involve all parties as partners. To deny meaningful participative access to students is to lock out the lateral and creative thinking students bring to consideration of issues.
Do adults always know best?
‘Adults know best’ is not a wise statement. It presupposes that age equates to wisdom. What it really infers is the inability and ineligibility of young people to participate in school governance. That’s illegitimate, in my view – it’s a denial of equal opportunity and ignores basic human rights.
No need to be frightened of including children
‘Student participation would, or should, build on the present two-dimensional partnership between schools and their parent communities. A new paradigm widens or redraws frameworks but rarely demolishes what existed before; it simply incorporates those elements into a more embracing perceptual frame’ (Beare and Slaughter 1993:73).
This precept goes to the heart of collaborative leadership and shared decision-making. It is inclusive of input from all parties with a stake in educational outcomes.
It can enhance functions and outcomes deriving from organisational process and structure. Denying a group with legitimate claim from entering decision-making partnerships can have dysfunctional consequences.
Partnerships need to be the outcome of genuine, honest and sincere relationships. No party to shared leadership and participative decision- making should be offered inclusion for tokenistic reasons. To Beare ‘the school can be thought of as a company of learners. If that is literally so, then those who want to learn (or their authorised agents) literally own and control the school’ (op cit: 211). In this context, a student representative council would, or should, act for all students in the same way as an elected parent council acts for the wider parent community.’
‘Children . . . are thinking, rational individuals’ (James & Prout, 1990 in Pollard and Tann, 1994:32)
Don’t underestimate children’s potential
We tend to underestimate the potential children have, their ability to think, rationalise, synthesise information and develop an action plan in relation to projects and initiatives. These words from children encapsulate the capacity, too often unrealised, they have to contribute.
‘When we think about what living in a democracy means to us, we realise how important it is that we grow up in an atmosphere where we learn to express our views and listen to those of others.
To be a good citizen is to understand that we can share in making decisions, that we want to work with others in decision-making, and that we are all valuable in making and implementing decisions’ (LaTrobe District Junior Council Network, 1996: 6).
A student council growing up: Karama Primary School, 1987 to 1991
Karama School students came from a middle and lower class socioeconomic background. Over 60% of school students were from ethnic backgrounds, many having migrated to Australia with their parents.
Notwithstanding differences between Karama and Nhulunbuy (a town on the Northern Territory, Australia), the concept of student involvement in school partnerships easily transferred to, and was readily understood by, the Karama School community. The school community, in both adult and student domains, accepted the concept of management through partnership.
It was both challenging and rewarding to work with broad visioned, creative and confident student leaders. They most ably represented the student body. Their capacity to identify problems, focus on the issues and develop solutions was enlightening to older minds. Students worked to make Karama School ‘their school’. Corporate pride and collective ownership became a trademark that evolved and developed during, and beyond, my tenure as Karama’s school principal. With that development came articulate, considered, confident, vibrant and student-focused leadership.
Two student councillors from Karama School, Mark Clifton (now an electrical tradesman) and Alex Smith (a tertiary education student) drew up an excellent guide to Student Council responsibilities. They determined with their council cohort that the SRC should accept responsibility in the following areas:
helping make school rules
meeting visitors to the school
answering the phones at recess and lunch time
helping run school assemblies
raising money for charities and school improvements
Many other important things.
Mark Clifton and Alex Smith stated: ‘boys and girls who are elected have an important job to do . . . they must be the best of our students’.
The following were seen as essential qualities in youthful leaders by young people themselves:
honesty and trustworthiness
friendliness and helpfulness
good manners and clear speech
good standard of school dress, usually school uniform
fairness to all
preparedness to assist younger children
pride in the school
a willingness to give some of his or her own time for SRC duties
an ability to work with other members of the SRC sensibly and productively.
Leanyer student council: ‘we’ over ‘I’
When I first arrived at Leanyer School, in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, several things perturbed me about an otherwise good school. One issue, impossible to pinpoint on the first day, had to do with student attitudes. After some months, the penny dropped. Students were, consciously and unconsciously, putting themselves ahead of their peers in importance terms. The needs of individual students seemed to be paramount.
At the time, the unspoken Leanyer ethos was ‘me first, others next’. However, once elected, the student council worked on turning student attitudes around, with students elected to the council seeing themselves as people doing things with others, and for others.
It was at Leanyer that I became convinced that student opinion and ability, in the area of problem solving and identification, is too often undervalued. This, in part, was shaped by demonstration that students who had placed ‘self’ ahead of ‘others’ in their thinking were willing to change their focus and consider the collective, both spontaneously and willingly, when an alternative organisational direction was presented and demonstrated.
My experience at Karama School demonstrated that successful schools focus on groups and the collective awareness that is a part of ‘groupship’. Leanyer students confirmed that attitude realignment was essential and could be an outcome of student council energies focusing on the ‘us’ of ‘our’ school.
How student councils can work: status and recognition
Traditionally, educational partnerships have rarely extended beyond the staff and parents of school communities. This is especially the case at the primary school level. Involving students in educational partnerships in three school communities has convinced me of the value and worth of student contribution. I suspect that many of my principal colleagues, if asked to comment, would respond that primary school student empowerment is, at best, fanciful. In other words, they see it as impractical.
‘Breaking down the barriers’ was a term coined to challenge the distance between schools and communities in the period prior to establishment of teacher and parent partnerships through school councils. Yet what was considered impossible has come to pass. Now, the same barrier is confronted when considering participation by students in an extension of the partnership model.
Danger of minimisation
There is a danger that school principals, as organisational leaders, may choose to minimise, trivialise or ‘channel and direct’ SRC function. Such ‘minimisation’ might be offering little to the SRC beyond an election, with the role of councillors meaning very little at all.
Trivialisation, that is, having a student representative council in name only, results in the withering of student interest, distrust in, and disrespect, for the principal and possibly staff. Ultimately, student attitudes become cynical and counterproductive. The manipulation of the SRC agenda, especially by exerting undue pressure on participants, is a most destructive strategy.
A concept gaining momentum
Recognition of primary school children as student councillors elected to a formally recognised representative organisation is a developing and not quite the rare concept of a few years ago. Notwithstanding, principals, staff and parents considering the concept of student representative councils would be well advised to ‘make haste slowly’.
The development of students as leaders should be a moulding process. You don’t just drop people into untried waters and expect them to instantly know how to swim. You provide chances for them to test the water and familiarise themselves with the new environment.
Learning about leadership should be an educative process, enabling students to ‘step forward with confidence’ (Grant Christie, in conversation with me on 6 January 1997).
I would offer the following recommendations:
that the benefits of including students in educational partnerships within primary school communities be explored
that further study be undertaken to gauge student, staff and parent interest in this extension
that student representative councils be considered as student focus groups, rather than being labelled as a student committee. This will enhance the positive connotation of such a group to staff, parents and the school community at large
that student councils be supported by empathetic adult advisory staff (principals, teachers, or both) who avoid the possibility of adult influence dominating the organisation
that any pilot program (refer recommendation four) be supported by attempts to establish reading or reference list on the subject of primary school student empowerment
that participating schools be encouraged to make contact with schools or groups piloting primary student empowerment programs elsewhere, for instance, Roger Holdsworth, coordinator of theConnect magazine, and the La Trobe Junior School Council Network
that documents explaining the purpose and function of student representative councils be prepared and circulated to all stakeholders (students, staff, parents and supporters) within the school community. Informational statements should be couched in appropriate language and provide history and background on the SRC for new families joining the school community.
that student representative council members network carefully at the start of each year, to ensure that continuing students are reminded, and new students are informed, about the Student Representative Council. This could be done by a combination of assembly presentations, class visits, small group and one-to-one discussions
that feedback on process, procedure and function be sought and considered by the Student Council, to enhance its organisational dynamic and growth
that candidates seeking election to Student Representative Councils be fully conversant with the roles and responsibilities of those elected
that both the honour and the obligation of election be elaborated to those intending to seek nomination
that those seeking, or being asked, to nominate have the chance to discuss the matter fully with their parents. This will enable parents to be fully aware of their child’s intentions. It will provide parents with a chance to discuss with their child the advisability or otherwise of seeking election on the basis of school responsibilities and extra-curricular activities
that ‘key’ days be advertised in a way that magnifies them as steps leading to SRC elections
that intending candidates have a full chance to discuss their nomination with peers and parents
that letters and information statement be sent to parents and re-visited to candidates
that candidates have the opportunity to present to their peers through speech giving (a part of the preparation should be coaching toward presentation by students of themselves and their policy platforms)
that the polling day procedures be child-focused, so students identify the day as one they ‘own’, and not one in which they participate at the behest of adults
that unsuccessful candidates be encouraged, not forgotten
that successful candidates be welcomed to the student representative council through a formal and dignified ceremony
that members of the student representative discuss who they would prefer as their advisory teachers, then contact those teachers to seek their support and involvement’
that student representative councils be elected in accordance with agreed procedure that follows on a year-by-year or period-by period basis for the sake of consistency. This will enhance the status of student representative organisation
that all students, parents, staff and members of the SRC accept and accord with a charter that encompasses the following (or similar) objectives and functions.
honesty and trustworthiness
friendliness and helpfulness
good manners and clear speech
a good standard of dress, usually school uniform
fairness to all
preparedness to assist younger children
pride in school and community
willingness to give personal time to SRC responsibilities
ability to work productively as a focus group member
ability to represent the interests of a student collective
Objectives and responsibilities
helping to develop a school code of conduct
meeting visitors to the school
answering telephones at recess and lunch time
helping to run school assemblies
raising money for charity and school improvements
establishing quality leadership at student level
raising the profile of the school to its community and the public
Student representative councils: forums of honest intent and outcome
I am firmly convinced that student councils can ‘lead from the front’, setting appropriate and realistic goals and commitments with, and for, students. This includes discussion of educational issues and meaningful contribution to school policy. To facilitate this process, the student council must be kept informed of issues and systemic educational directions.
Within my heart I know that primary student involvement in school governance is the way to go. Nineteen years and three schools later, I am a school principal on the right track through involving students in our schools. Staff and parents have been active participants in group-focused management and direction-setting processes.
Multiplying the benefits
Student councils can work for the benefit of the school and the development of its members. Traditionalism has turned – or is turning – and there is a far more positive focus on students than there used to be. Parents, as well as their children, have to be convinced that this is the case, meaning that public relations are essential in demonstrating attitudinal change on the part of school educators.
While it is possible to show children that their input and interaction is both sought and valued, there may be some scepticism on the part of parents about the validity of this position because of their own unfortunate school experiences.
Changing the culture
Education and appeal to parents is essential if a history that distanced parents and students from teachers and principals is to be overcome. It is also essential that teachers and principals become aware of the value of student voice. Children themselves will need to be convinced about the validity of the partnership invitation. These processes take time and haste should be made slowly. The three-way partnership needs to be solidly founded and carefully built.
Student representative councils are indispensable organisations. Experience suggests that, without them, school communities would have been minus an important leadership and management dimension. I doubt that many primary school principal colleagues would share this perception so enthusiastically, but most haven’t experienced the extended shared leadership model outlined in this study. There is a lot of educating to do!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mr Henry Gray was at the time of writing, Principal of Leanyer School, in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, Australia. He has been involves in schools level educational leadership in Western Australia and the Northern Territory since 1971.
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