Students speak up: How schools are listening to pupils

Some schools are allowing pupils to influence decisions in a democratic, progressive way

A growing number of schools are taking the voices of students seriously by including them on boards of management and other decision-making bodies. Photograph: iStock

A growing number of schools are taking the voices of students seriously by including them on boards of management and other decision-making bodies. Photograph: iStock

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Should secondary students be able to help run their own schools?

It might sounds like a recipe for anarchy to some. But at a growing number of schools, it’s giving students a greater sense of ownership of their education

At North Wicklow Educate Together secondary school, two students sit on the school’s board of management.

“School is for the students,” says Dillon Brandon (15), one of the pupil representatives on the board. “I feel like it’s important we have a say. We have student assemblies, and I put forward that we have more vegetarian options at the canteen. And now there are.”

Callum Doherty (14) says the involvement of students also leads to better experiences for students.

“We polled students on what they wanted to see in the yard. For example sports areas, shelters, seating, artwork. A member of the student council, Ollie, made up the questions like what they wanted to see, the purpose of the yard and to draw a picture on the back,” he says.

“The response was good. We presented it to the board of management, gave them the results to get funding for what students actually wanted to see.

“The parents association have found a small snooker table and asked if we wanted to use it. So we’re now polling students on who would actually use it, volunteer to set it up and take it down during lunch.”

As “associate board members”, they have a vote on matters such as school policies and the school’s code of behaviour.

Disciplinary issues

However, they do not attend for sensitive matters such as disciplinary issues involving students or complaints against teachers.

Tuesday marks the Universal World Children’s Day, celebrating the day back in 1959 when the Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly.

It’s a day signifying the important rights and freedoms children should have to help in them in their development.

However, a recent survey of more than 3,000 secondary school students indicates that many students feel their voices aren’t being listened to.

This may be about to change.

Under planned new “student and parent charters”, schools will be required to strengthen the way pupils are consulted over the running of schools and to provide more transparent ways of handling complaints.

Department of Education guidelines say consultation with younger students will be achieved either through engagement with the student council or other “age appropriate” means of hearing the voice of the child.

The measures are contained in draft legislation – though many schools aren’t waiting to be told what to do.

There is a series of new initiatives being taken by schools to ensure students have greater say in their education.

At North Wicklow Educate Together secondary school, for example, they are trying to revamp their student councils.

Best practice

Teacher Kate Minnock says they are experimenting with how the council can operate more effectively by looking at best practice from research and listening to student feedback.

“The role of education is more and more about preparing our students to become active citizens. It’s about merging the student with the adult voice,” she says. “If students are not actively part of decision-making in school, are they going to feel like they’re actively making decisions on a societal level?”

While many would hesitate considering student councils as anything more than token authority to a small number of students, Minnock sees it as a huge opportunity for inclusion in a democratic process.

“Most types of student councils you have to be voted on, and it can become a competition like a popularity contest.

“This means some voices wouldn’t be represented. Here, if you want to be on the student council, your voice is important. Everyone is welcome.

“We have 16 people on the council, and with that the main thing is listening skills – so far the students have been phenomenal.

“It’s really something we’re trying to build across the whole school – that idea of listening and valuing what each person is saying. It’s very hard to be democratic if we’re not listening to each other.”

Dress code

She gives the example of listening to student voices over its dress code policy.

“A small working group would present a proposal. When that’s presented, we would do a round of clarifying questions.

“Is there anything that’s not understood? Are there any objections? If so, then it’s thumbs down and your voice has been heard. It’s not seen as a negative thing, it’s seen as a gift.

“Tell us what your objection is, and how we can make it work or that you consent to others discussing these issues. That they have the skills to peer educate.

“It’s also about autonomy for schools – it’s not about rolling this out in every school but about getting feedback from your own students to see if what you’re doing is working” Minnock adds.

Joni Morris (12) says her school will be taking part in Educate Together’s “ethical education conference” on November 24th, where student voices and decision-making will feature heavily, with sessions facilitated by the students themselves.

“We’re going to be doing student council training,” she says. “We get to bring back the skills that we learned from there to hopefully make our own student council even better. We’re also learning about gender equality while working with a lot of other schools.

“I’m looking forward to student council training” agrees Radu McGill (12) “because I want to learn how we can improve our student council here. And I’m also looking forward to meeting new people, new friends.

“A lot of decisions made by the board of management directly impact the students. It’s important we have a say so that the decisions don’t affect us in a bad way.”

Representation of students

The representation of students on boards of management started with the first Educate Together second-level schools back in 2014.

“It was a practice which was a somewhat controversial step at the time” says Luke O’Shaughnessy, communications manager of Educate Together.

He feels more meaningful involvement is part of a growing trend across education.

“It is heartening now to see the new Parent and Student Charter will involve parents and students more decisively in the work of schools

“The results can only serve to support democracy in action; more confident young people capable of and committed to creating positive change in their school and by extension in society,” he says.

While a recent Comhairle na nÓg report has done much to address the lack of student voices, it surveyed 3,000 young people aged 12-18. But is there a minimum age for when a child should be heard?

At Kildare Town’s Educate Together National School, for example, principal Gerry Breslin feels it is important every child is involved with important decisions pertaining to school life.

“The motto of the school is ‘happy children learn’, which is something that we all really believe in as a staff and try to promote everyday,” Breslin says.

Homework vs projects

“According to our student council, children were ‘growing bored’ of homework. As a staff we made a decision to trial only project homework in response to their feedback.

“Now, to find a happy medium, the children complete two weeks of project homework every month and two weeks of traditional homework such as English and Maths.”

Another example is when the children designed and voted for the school jerseys they would like the school to have.

“We now have our first set of jerseys, which were designed by Eden Lau in second class,” Breslin says.

“The children are often asked to think up some fundraising events for our school. Last year, Cathy Costello’s second class decided they would like to have a disco/ice-cream party to raise funds for Down Syndrome Ireland.

“The children voice their opinions as part of our debate team and compete all around Leinster.

“It is another important way of reinforcing the fact that their thoughts matter as they are the future.”

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