The first in a new series of pull-out fi ve-step guides for people working with children and teenagers. This week: how to set up a school council.
Class councils first
Introducing a school council system can feel a bit daunting, so it is good to start off small and introduce class councils first. These are made up of whole classes which, in secondary schools at least, then usually elect two representatives to sit on their relevant year council. Class councils enable pupils to start learning useful skills, such as how to form an argument. They should ideally meet once a week to enable all students to share their ideas regularly, and many schools find time for these meetings to take place during personal, social and health education (PSHE) lessons. Class and year council members can then stand for election to the overall school council (although other pupils can stand too).
Eva Crasnow from School Councils UK, a charity which helps schools to develop structures for pupil participation, says that school council elections should take place annually at the beginning of each new school year and should be high profile events. A group of people, including students and a teacher, should make up a working party responsible for preparing for these elections. Their work will include raising awareness, through things such as poster countdown campaigns, announcements in assemblies, and discussions in PSHE lessons about what a school council is. Crasnow suggests that councils should have a maximum of 20-25 members and be a mixture of students of different ages.
The class representatives and the school council executive (ie treasurer, secretary, chair, vice-chair) will need new skills to do their jobs and will require training, just like the netball or swimming team. Once the school council is up and running, sub-committees should be created. These should involve unelected pupils as well as elected representatives to enable more people to take part, and can be involved in a range of things such as finding out pupils opinions on particular issues. They will usually be accountable to the main council.
Be patient and start small
School councils are large structures and Crasnow says they should not be expected to function well immediately. “It takes at least a year to get councils to be successful. People often get a bit
disheartened. It’s quite a mammoth structure – it needs co-operation from everybody to get it to work,” she says. As a result, Crasnow advises that councils should not be too ambitious at the start, and that small achievements early on, like a suggestions box or a noticeboard, will bring confidence and increase the chances of long-term success. She says a key problem faced by secondary schools is a lack of time to fit in council meetings and difficulties maintaining the council’s profile.
Allocate the necessary resources
School councils and year councils each need a named teacher to give them guidance and support. Form tutors also need to be supportive to make sure class councils are successful and to ensure effective communication between classes and school councils. They may need to give councils tutorial time for meetings and feedback sessions Diana Stout, a 15-year-old member of Preston Manor High School Council in Wembley, Middlesex, argues that it is also important for school councils to be given a budget so they can make things happen. At her school, year councils receive £100 a year, and the overall council receives £1,000. Many councils also raise their own money through fundraising.
Avoiding the pitfalls
For school councils to be successful, it is essential that class councils meet regularly. “As soon as the link with your constituency weakens that is a major pitfall,” warns Eva Crasnow from School Councils UK. “Then you are not filtering ideas on – you are just discussing what you want to discuss.” It is also essential that councils are elected rather than made up of teachers’ favourites. “It’s better to have someone that students can talk to,” explains school council member Diana Stout.
School councils have been around in England for about 20 years. School Councils UK, a charity that helps schools develop structures for pupil participation, estimates that about 70% of primary and secondary schools now have one. In Wales, it became a statutory requirement from this year. Crasnow says that her organisation is currently trying to encourage primary schools to get the youngest children more involved.
School Councils UK offers training to both teachers and pupils involved in setting up school councils and provides a range of resources, including the secondary school councillor handbook. Go to www.schoolcouncils.org. Last month the Department for Education and Skills launched a School Councils Toolkit for primary teachers and a handbook for primary pupils, both produced by School Councils UK. These can be downloaded at www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/innovation-unit