Student Councils – marmite to me!

Mr Kieran McGraneIn recent years students have, rightly in my opinion, come to have a greater say in their schools thanks to a commitment to ‘student voice’ activities. There has also been a strong push from DfE that every school should have a student council but is this a good idea and does it actually support the drive to involve students in meaningful activity?

Student council

The arguments for student councils are that it enables 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. In my experience they are not organised in a way that enables reps to canvas the opinions of their fellow students therefore the ‘issues’ raised can potentially be the hobbyhorses of those involved in the student council. This is the main reason why I choose to avoid them.

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 them 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.

Student of the Month (SOTM) meetings with the Headteacher

Each month Form Tutors identify two SOTM for reasons of their choosing. A letter is sent home citing the reason for their nomination and they also receive a certificate.

Following this I meet with a random selection (chosen by my PA); this is usually 4-5 from each year group comprising a total group of 16-24. I ask two simple questions:

  1. What do you like most about school and why?
  2. What would you most like to change about school and why?

Students are given 5 minutes to consider their views and jot them down on post it notes (that are collected in at the end) before we start the discussion. They are encouraged to be frank and honest but our golden rule is that we do not name any teachers.

What I have found is that each month I meet a different selection of students and quickly gain an insight in to common themes that emerge. It also enables me to share with them the reasons behind certain decisions, which they clearly appreciate.

Department reviews

Each department is reviewed every year and the process is quite intense. The cycle is a two-day review is followed the year after by a 1-day ‘light touch’ review.

The two-day programme involves a range of self-evaluation activities 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 do they enjoy most about the subject?
  • 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 due to the accurate way it depicts the department.

Staff confidence in the process has increased as they have gradually been exposed to the student views and recognise these as valid contributions to the improvement agenda.

10-second surveys

Not unlike 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:

  • data crunching a large number of responses
  • the time involved
  • 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 a 10-second survey every 3-4 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 a joint response via the tutor 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 we are developing displays 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 action is taken. This strategy will, in time, be extended so that students are responsible for identifying the key question.

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.

Kieran McGrane, Head Teacher at Ponteland Community High School 

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