School Councils - School Improvement 1: the view of the research team

Between 2004 and 2007 the London Secondary Schools Action Research Project worked with a group of eight comprehensive schools to develop their school councils and research the process and results of this intervention. Lois Canessa was appointed the manager and sole project worker, and her work was assessed by the Centre for International Education and Research (CIER) at Birmingham University.

At the beginning and end of the project, students were asked to fill in questionnaires covering a number of different areas. Were they happy in school? Did they feel safe? Did they feel able to approach teachers when they had problems with their learning? Did they feel that their views were given a fair hearing? And so on.

At the end of the project, in only one school did the survey responses show consistent improvement in all areas. In one other school there was a major increase (from a very low base) in student happiness, but in the other six there was little change, and in some instances a deterioration. This may have been due to the fact that different groups of children responded to the initial and final surveys. (Another reason may have been that having seen what was possible, the children had understood what they were missing.)

The staff were also invited to answer a different questionnaire, and of the small proportion who did so 40% felt there had been either some improvement or a lot of improvement, compared with 60% who thought there had been little or none. These figures, however, carry little weight because so few of the staff in some of the schools were involved in the research, or indeed even aware that it was going on; in one school only two adults responded to the questionnaire.

The CIER, however, was so impressed by what success there was in some areas in some schools that it was able to say, "The view of the research team is that this has been a highly successful project. . . . The schools that moved into the more tricky areas of student involvement, such as teaching and learning, have shown that not only is it not too threatening but that it is very beneficial. Similarly, those that trusted the young people to take some control of behaviour of peers, to organise conferences, or to dispense funds, found that this trust paid off. This project has demonstrated some important possibilities and we think quite radically new potentials for school council work and for changing school climate."

And a little later:

Our overall conclusions are that if the building blocks are there, and if a maximalist view of their role and breadth is taken, then school councils can make a difference and can improve a school and the lives of the people in it. This is because there is an ongoing and combined logic:

• Every student has an opportunity to understand how the school functions and why and how decisions are made; they hear the views of teachers on management, not just on their individual performance or behaviour.

• Every student has an opportunity to give a view, individually or collectively, on these functions, and feels that this view is heard and understood.

• Therefore, students have a sense that they are part of an organisation which is there for them, because of them and through them, rather than being just recipients or targets of some far-off and long-forgotten policy which made education compulsory and structured in a particular way.

• When students are treated as adults, they behave like adults, more or less. School council work gives the message to both staff and students that students can take responsibility.

• Students know as much as teachers about teaching and learning. They just know different things. Working together on this can be complementary.

• Students know as much as teachers about behaviour. They probably know more. Again, working together creates a symbiosis which tackles behaviour issues.

• Students who participate learn a whole new set of skills and competences which spill over into their academic performance.

" If the building blocks are there," they say, "and if a maximalist view of their role and breadth is taken." In far too many schools the only rational reaction from the children is, "If only."

School Councils – School Improvement by Lynn Davies and Hiromi Yamashita, is available from School Councils UK, 3 rd Floor, 108-110 Camden High Street, London NW1 0LU, or CIER, University of Birmingham,Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, and online at


School Councils – School Improvement 2: 
the view of the project manager

Lois Canessa's role as full-time project manager was to advise on participatory structures, train students and staff and develop various projects. She was disappointed by the lack of co-operation from some schools. She felt she was wasting her time where the school management was only interested in having the boxes ticked rather than getting genuinely involved in the whole process. She was sometimes frustrated by lack of access to heads and their unwillingness to enter into discussions with her, seeing her as someone with little status. One head teacher actually had Lois and Professor Lynn Davies escorted out of the school and forbidden to return. The initial list of ten schools was soon reduced to eight.

She wrote, 'I think all staff under-estimate the contempt with which students hold tokenistic school councils that are only there to serve the purposes of the adults. They also resent the amount of time they invest in these attempts only to be disappointed time after time when they are not taken seriously, or nobody has the decency to explain to them why a particular decision has been made.'

Her interventions were less successful than she had hoped, and by the end of her three years, she came to attribute this largely to school managers who tried to introduce 'a little bit of democracy.' There can be no such thing as a little bit of democracy in schools, she says, or a little bit of student voice. Small concessions are not seen by pupils as a start on the road to anything, they are perceived as what they are – tokenism. You either trust students and believe in involving them in decision-making or you don't – there can be no compromise. Lois herself does trust children, and this differentiates her from most teachers: as one student commented, 'Lois acts normal, not like a teacher, just like a normal person.'

What senior managers perceive as a sensibly cautious 'little bit' leads to pupils feeling frustrated and despondent at the pointlessness of it all. In spite of the lack of empathy on the part of some staff and the hostility of some unions, Lois believes that proper communication and training would make it possible to introduce student voice without the cautious limitations managers seem to think necessary. There is no need for teachers to feel threatened by a process which can lead to improvement for all parties. It is only when it is done badly, for instance in a tokenistic way, or because the management have a hidden agenda of surveillance of staff, that there is anything to fear.

In Lois's view the mark of a good Head is readiness to accept the students' right to voice an opinion about any decision that affects them - a right that is enshrined in article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Britain is a signatory. Few staff at grass roots level, Lois believes, are aware of any of the legislation.

In the traditional hierarchy, children are considered to be inferior and ignorant. Letting children have their say about decision-making challenges this hierarchy. Lois has seen that the children, far from being ignorant and inferior, are actually the people who know most about daily life in their schools and the issues and problems that arise. This was not understood in all of the eight schools where she worked. Unless pupil voice was an integral part of the school's management it was never heard, because managers saw it as a threat. They completely misjudged the pupil body. Most children understand clearly that it is in their own interest to make their schools into better places. If they are given the opportunity that is what they will do.

Some Heads, afraid of releasing unpredictable and uncontrollable demands for change, limited the frequency of council meetings and restricted the range of topics that could be discussed. In Lois's experience this kind of attempt to control the agenda led to widespread frustration and the feeling that nothing can be achieved.

Staff, especially senior managers, have to realise that student councils will never flourish unless the students' opinions are given a fair hearing. This does not mean the management simply giving way. On several occasions Lois saw Heads refusing requests, but pupils being satisfied with an up-front explanation. For the children it is the process of discussion and involvement that matters. Students are cautious. They accept that fledgling student voice will never take off if its demands are unrealistic.

Lois has observed that most staff would accept an incremental approach, allowing one small step at a time. However, this is not compatible with a genuine belief in involving students in decision-making, because if you believe in student voice then you must allow it to impact on all areas of school life. When managers settle for the odd consultation exercise with a group of unrepresentative students it does not strike a small blow for pupil voice; it actually undermines it, because children can see that it does not show any genuine trust in their good sense and responsibility.

At the end of her three years of working with schools that were inclining towards a more democratic approach, Lois declares that to be effective student voice must be an integral part of school management, and not merely added in, as it was in some of the schools in her project, where only very few of the staff were even aware of what she was doing. The more successful schools had Heads who genuinely believed in student voice as a useful way forward, and not merely as a box to be ticked. They saw that it was inconsistent to devolve responsibility for student voice to a subordinate and so they themselves took an active role in promoting it throughout the school. Without the whole-hearted support of the head teacher, says Lois, student voice can never gain its proper credibility or demonstrate its potential for school improvement.

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