David Gribble

ESSA is the newly founded representative body for secondary students in England, the English Secondary Students' Association. Its purpose is to demonstrate to students that their views on education are important and that, as stated in Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they have the right to express views freely in all matters affecting them.

Nearly all other European countries have some form of representative body for Secondary Students. The Organising Bureau of European School Students Unions (OBESSU) is the umbrella organisation for these European bodies. It acts as a European platform, whose main objectives are to improve the position of school students in secondary education, and to increase co-operation and exchange of information between school students in Europe. It aims to improve the quality of education and promotes the process of democracy and it highlights the benefits of intercultural co-operation. Up until now the UK has not been represented, and the concerns of UK students have not been addressed alongside those of their European counterparts.

ESSA was founded in November 2003 by Rajeeb Dey, with the support of UnLTD (the Foundation for Social Entrepreneurs) and the Phoenix Education Trust, a small national charity that promotes democratic education. ESSA’s work is driven by a national Council of eighteen students aged 11-19, with two representatives from each Government region.

School is a place where most young people spend a vast amount of their time. For many it is a positive experience, says ESSA, but for others it is something to be endured rather than enjoyed. ESSA will have a dual role. Firstly, it will promote the benefits of involving young people in all decisions that affect their school lives and secondly it will provide individual students with support in voicing their views and opinions. This support will be particularly valuable for the less vocal and the most disenfranchised members of the school community.

Since 2002 citizenship education has been compulsory in all English state secondary schools and ‘participation and responsible action’ are an important element of it. The problem is that most schools do not know how to make the participation and action real. Without provisions for facilitating participation amongst school students, the government’s efforts for citizenship education in schools will be fruitless. ESSA intends to make it possible for the voices of secondary school students to be heard and for their rights to be addressed, so encouraging young people to become involved and play an active role in society.

ESSA held its inaugural conference and consultation on 4th February 2005 at the Trades Union Congress in London. Around 200 students from across the nine regions of England attended the event to determine their key issues of concern and to decide on the services they would like ESSA to provide. They also contributed to a training programme developed by ESSA called Confidence in Communication, and discussed ways of ensuring that their local education authorities made student participation in decision-making central to their agendas.

'School students don't want to be consulted on policies after they've been shaped and formed,' said Rajeeb Dey, ESSA's National Co-ordinator. 'We want to work in partnership with policy makers to determine the agenda. This means on-going discussion between student representatives and policy-makers, not just occasional calls for consultation when policy-makers have already decided what the agenda should be. Students are at the heart of education and their opinions should be central to shaping educational structures and practices.'

One fourteen-year-old commented, ' Students need an organisation of their own like ESSA because when we try to make a difference on our own the adults ignore us. Working together we'll be too loud to ignore!'

By working with partner organisations ESSA will establish itself as the first organisation in England to represent secondary students at a national level. It has had wide-ranging support, including some from unexpected sources such as the National Union of Teachers, the Secondary Heads Association, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and even from the then Minister for Schools Standards, Stephen Twigg, who said: 'This is good news, not only for pupils but for teachers and all those who work in education - including Government. Through ESSA, I look forward to seeing more pupils taking part in decision making in their schools and also bringing their views to all those who are making policy locally and nationally. I'm sure they will make a huge and valuable contribution.'

Under the title of 'studentvoice.co.uk', ESSA hopes that in the long term, it will be replicated in the rest of the UK, and eventually involve students across all the whole age range.

For more information about ESSA visit www.studentvoice.co.uk

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