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PUPIL DEMOCRACY IN ENGLAND

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Britain is supposed to be a democratic country, and indeed has historically tried to export its version of 'good governance' to many parts of the globe. This paper assesses how far democracy is practised in schools - using European research from the Centre for International Education and Research at Birmingham as a comparative point1, and looking particularly at pupils. Without going into the many definitions of democracy, it would seem that there are four basic principles which could be agreed on internationally: participation, rights, equity and informed choice. Whether schools are democratically managed, and whether teachers are consulted and participate in all areas of educational decision-making (such as curriculum) would be the subject of another paper. Here I focus on pupil participation and rights, looking at the current situation and the prognosis for the future. Ways in which democratisation occurs can be through formal legislation or through informal processes of change, or some mutually reinforcing combination of both. Legislation does not guarantee democracy, but it can provide a framework in which opponents of democratic practice find it difficult to operate. Conversely democratic practice can occur without legislation, but faces problems of sustainability if reliant on inspired individuals. We need to look therefore at both legal and practical forms of democracy in schools to assess the current situation.

One thing our research in Europe demonstrated is that we are nowhere near a single currency with regard to pupil democracy. The EURIDEM project, which was completed in 2000, examined four countries of Europe (Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden) in terms of both their legislation to ensure that pupils have a voice and how this legislation impacted on school life. We found significant differences between European law and practice and that in UK, and had to conclude that UK lags well behind in terms of its acceptance of pupil rights and its understanding of the effectiveness of involving pupils in educational decision-making - whether at school, local or national level.

The disparity could be found in five areas: school boards, pupil councils, curriculum planning, regional/national consultation and pupil unions. Legislation in Europe covers at least the first three of these. In Denmark for example, pupils are required to be represented on School Boards, with the composition laid down (5-7 parent representatives, 2 teacher representatives and 2 pupil representatives elected by and from among the pupils of the school). In the two Länder of Germany that we researched (Saarbrucken and Nordrhein Westfalen), pupils must by law be represented on the Schulkonferenz (school committee), again with the numbers laid down. In the Netherlands there is actually a Participation Act (1982) which stipulates that every school must have a Participation Council, which at secondary school level must include pupil representatives. Schools are required to have a Pupils Charter and a complaints procedure.


This contrasts starkly with England where pupils are not allowed to be on governing bodies. A previous Labour government had created the opportunity for schools with sixth forms to have one sixth former over the age of 18 as a school governor; this power was removed by the next Conservative government, and has not been restated by the current government. A number of good schools here of course circumvent this ban by inviting pupils to attend all or part of meetings, by having pupils on governors' sub-committees or by governors reporting back directly to pupils in oral or written form. Yet it is indicative that this remains an individual school initiative and is not mandated, a sign of successive governments' contempt for Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

There is, secondly, firmer legislation in the four countries to ensure that all schools have pupil councils, at class and school level. England is perhaps moving that way, with the new citizenship guidelines advising that the 'participation' element could be fulfilled through School Councils, but we are a long way from legislation. There is a bizarre contradiction in our educational philosophies: while it is seen as acceptable and indeed desirable to centralise and legislate for curriculum and assessment - and even teaching methods in the literacy and numeracy hours - when it comes to pupil involvement in decisions on their own learning we revert to a neo-liberal ideology which upholds the freedom of schools to decide its own affairs.

With regard to curriculum and 'pedagogical planning', pupils in Europe are not just allowed but required to participate. Regulations in Sweden state that at upper levels pupils must participate in the same numbers as staff in meetings about pedagogy and curriculum. The Danish Executive Order on Upper Secondary Schools similarly states that teachers and students must discuss teaching regularly and conduct joint internal assessment of the teaching. In the Netherlands, pupils were systematically participating in the appointment, retention and promotion of teachers and head teachers (as do some schools here). In Germany, secondary schools have Fachkonferenzen (Subject committees) comprised of elected teachers, parents and pupils, who meet to discuss the curriculum and teaching methods within each subject. This all seems the right way round: while in England the curriculum is centralised with no pupil consultation or participation, in European countries the general regulation that there must be participation is centralised, but actual decision-making on curriculum and learning is localised. This represents the true spirit of subsidiarity, that decisions should be made as close as possible to those who are affected by them.

A similar reversal exists with regard to the teaching of human rights. While in many countries, not just Europe, this is seen as a crucial component of a civic or citizenship education, there has been resistance in this country to making the teaching of rights a compulsory element. One of the influential architects of this initial resistance, Bernard Crick, claimed at the launch of the EURIDEM project that human rights might be taught by rote and therefore be boring for children. (That much of the national curriculum might be taught by rote and be equally boring seemed not be part of the discussion). The Convention on the Rights of the Child is not referred to in the Citizenship guidance to schools. With this new citizenship education, the government is stressing a 'light touch', that is, allowing teachers or schools to decide their own citizenship curriculum and assessment, rather than follow prescribed syllabuses. Why is it that there has to be a 'light touch' with fundamental democracy and rights and not with testing children to destruction?



An even more marked difference between European countries and ourselves, fourthly, is the presence of regional and national forums where pupils take part in educational policy decision-making. In Denmark pupils are represented on the national Folkeskole Council which decides policy for state schools. In Sweden pupils are represented on the Local Boards of Education. In Germany there are complicated systems of representation, whereby school councils elect representatives to local councils, thence to regional councils and finally to Land councils. While the voice of pupils may get diluted in the process, and at national levels remain small, there are nonetheless important messages and safeguards in the system. The Danish ministry representatives said that they would not dream of instituting reform without consulting pupils; their view was that if reform takes a long time because of the consultative mechanisms, that is part of democracy and will make for better implementation in the long run.

National School Student Unions finally play an important part in this process of consultation. While the creation of a School Student Union is in its infancy in England, pupil unions and their umbrella organisation OBESSU (Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions) play a significant role in representing the voice of pupils and in training for participation at the different levels. The unions receive budgets from local or national government for their activities, and often accommodation or other material support such as funding pupils to attend meetings and conferences. While often dealing with pupil complaints, the unions are not seen as antagonistic to government; on the contrary, Ministries work closely with them - in the Netherlands for example on publications to schools and parents.

Critics of the formalisation of participation will query whether schools and local authorities will pay lip-service to pupil involvement, and simply routinise it. In our fieldwork in schools, we did find some examples of this; but overall we found a high level of real pupil engagement and innovation. Pupils not only were able to talk the language of democracy (often in a second language!) but were obviously taking responsibility for their learning in sophisticated ways. They seemed to be treated with considerable respect by teachers, and interestingly, discipline and exclusions were mentioned far less by teachers when talking of school life than would be the case in UK. Even in schools where the management seemed less committed to full democracy, pupils knew the charters and their entitlements and could use them to gain improvements in teaching.

What then is the prognosis for the future in England? There are four areas where there are signs of hope and of greater democratisation. One is the new citizenship curriculum and its stress on pupil voice. There have to be some benefits from our inspection regime, and one of them may be that OFSTED will be looking for indicators of citizenship learning, and are already complimenting some schools on the work of their School Councils. The second area is the growth of local and regional forums such as Youth Parliaments, Youth Congresses, Shadow G8 summits, and the wealth of projects that come from organisations such as Development Education Centres that bring young people together to debate and to lobby for change. The third area is the start of the English School Students Association (ESSA). An electronic network has begun, and a series of meetings held. This has the full support of the Education Select Committee of the UK Youth Parliament. OBESSU in Europe are providing much support and advice, and demonstrate that it is not necessary - indeed possibly counterproductive - to have adults firmly steering an initiative. What is needed from adults or government is solid financial backup and formal acceptance as an important body to be drawn into educational decision-making.



A fourth area is reform of legislation, where various lobby groups such as the Children's Rights Alliance for England and the Children's Consortium on Education have been putting pressure on to redraft legislation to take account of various Articles in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The equity area of democracy is currently shaky in terms of payment for education, school exclusions, access to higher education and equal access to a broad curriculum. There is a government booklet related to citizenship entitled 'Getting involved: extending opportunities for pupil participation', which stresses involving pupils in decision-making and supporting effective school councils. Yet unlike social workers who have a legal duty to consult children since the Children Act 1975 came into force, teachers are under no obligation to seek or take account of the views of children when making decisions that affect them. Scotland now does have a clause that places a duty on local authorities to 'have due regard' to the views of the child in such decisions, and it is hoped that English law will also follow that route.

Will this then be enough to claim that our educational provision for young people is democratic? The problem remains that of fragmentation and unevenness. Whether a child has participation rights, has their voice heard and experiences a curriculum that meets their needs depends very much on where they live and which school they go to. The European experience demonstrates the need for national legislation on participation and for support and recognition of nation-wide bodies for student voice. English education policy will continue to lurch through a number of mistakes (over-heavy curriculum prescription, testing, A/S levels) unless pupils are routinely and legitimately brought into decision-making processes and inject the voice of sanity and experience.



1 Davies, L and Kirkpatrick, G (2000) The EURIDEM Project: A Review of Pupil Democracy in Europe London: Children's Rights Alliance

Note: Copyright of this article belongs to the author.



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