Sarah Bonnell School has a long-standing emphasis on student leadership, with a leadership and election model which reflects the values of democracy, as well as the ethos of the school. This is an incredibly successful, inclusive and aspirational leadership model which encourages students to aim high, ensure their voices are heard and make a real change.
However, it could be said that historically students in the Key Stage 3 Year Councils (Years 7, 8 and 9) were not as involved in school decision making/project ownership as perhaps we (or they!) would have liked. These students would perhaps sit in Executive Council meetings with their older counterparts, often nervous to offer ideas or voice issues that were important to them. By no means was there a lack of inspiration or aspiration, but rather an anxiety to speak out in front of their peers, older year groups and teachers.
But I believe we can safely say that this has now changed, with Year 9 students often influencing and sometimes leading these sessions, positively overwhelming both students and staff with their ideas and impressing with their passion. This zeal and eagerness has in turn reverberated throughout the school, with ever more Key Stage 3 students willing to engage in both the politics of school life, but also more generally in their local area. These students are passionate about making a change.
Starting to work with Citizens was the turning point for the then Year 8 Student Council. Working with our organiser Alistair Rooms on the City Safe scheme enabled our students to take ownership of their leadership, empowering them to believe that their voice was just as important as anyone else’s. As a teacher, it was sometimes difficult to sit back and let the students lead sessions – it is normally second nature to offer my own ideas or try and guide a conversation! However, one of the guiding rules of Citizens is “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves”, which in turn allows people to take genuine ownership at all levels. This switch from a directive “teacher” approach to a more supportive and facilitating “coach” role has enabled the students to lead sessions, network at events, build relationships with a variety of stakeholders (including the Mayor of Newham!) and decide on project foci.
Of course I believe that Sarah Bonnell girls are special – they are to me, including all the members of the student council! However, really, we are no different from any other school in terms of how we were able to encourage student leadership and enable the girls to voice their opinions, and have them listened to. This can be replicated anywhere, with any group of students – if you have the right “ingredients”:
- Have a mantra – we quite often say to the girls “be the change you wish to see”, which encourages them to take ownership and move away from reliance on their teachers or other authority figures.
- Reward students – this can be big: for example those with excellent attendance at council meetings were rewarded with trips and visits, or small: all students were celebrated in year group assemblies and received a Year Council badge for their blazer that they wore with pride.
- Include them in decision making, or give the power of this to them – council meetings should be about sharing ideas and coming to a group consensus, not a teacher making a list of 3 suggestions and having the students pick one. Students will often discuss a topic in groups of 3 or 4, then join another group to widen the discussion, and finally feed back to the council and the teachers as a whole. This ensures that any decisions made are joint ones, and every member of the council feels heard.
- Embrace all of your students’ characteristics and differences – some members of our council love nothing more than standing up and presenting in assemblies or at events, or chairing borough-wide commissions on youth violence, but we also have students who contribute in other ways e.g. designing posters, taking minutes, researching online. Make sure that all students know they are valued, whatever they bring to the table.
This is of course not an exhaustive list, but these four “ingredients” are a fantastic place to start. So, go forth and transform your student council from the inside out!