For the teaching staff at All Saints Catholic School, the wellbeing and very best interests of their students have always been at the core of everything they do.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise to learn that one of the school’s most recent priorities has been to raise the profile and effectiveness of the pupil voice among staff, students and the community.
I decided to create an initiative which would allow local student councils to come together and discuss their processes, ideas and internal initiatives – and so the Student Council Summit was born.
What was initially just a day of networking is now to become an annual event sponsored by Student Councils UK. This year it brought together approximately 80 representatives from local schools as well as the director of children’s services locally and a number of local councillors.
The pupil voice initiative as a whole is one of the most important to be pushed forth in recent years. This programme encourages students to voice their opinions, concerns and suggestions, which are largely insightful and innovative.
We had two main objectives when we introduced the summit: the first was to build the skills of student leaders and refine their knowledge base on how to run an effective school council.
The second was to start a communication network between schools in the borough with the hopes of building relationships and improving individual school practice.
We got in touch with the nine secondary schools in the borough requesting that they send a maximum of 10 students each. Within a few days, eight had confirmed their attendance and committed to sending 10 students.
We also decided to reach out to the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where we are located, for advice. They were incredibly supportive of the initiative and put us in touch with the Children’s Services Select Committee (CSSC). Comprised of 19 councillors, the committee’s role is to investigate the services used by children and ensure that things are as good as they can possibly be.
The chair of the Barking and Dagenham (BAD) Youth Forum (and a co-opted member of the CSSC) had previously asked the committee to review student voice as he had been concerned about inconsistent approaches across the borough.
The CSSC agreed that the review should take the form of evidence-gathering with a report of recommendations written on completion. The report would be presented to the council’s cabinet and assembly for approval and all cited organisations would be asked to respond to it. Realising the importance of our summit and the potential it had to bring genuine student concerns to the forefront, the CSSC asked if they could attend as part of their evidence-gathering.
Completely student led
Young people think in a different way to adults and it is incredible to see what they are capable of imagining if we do not lead them towards pre-empted responses.
When questioning young people, teachers (and adults in general) can sometimes have a tendency to lead them to a desired outcome. We have found that it is far more interesting and beneficial to allow students the freedom to think independently.
The Student Council Summit was designed to be only semi-structured and wholly student led, thus allowing students to be creative and lead their own discussions – the results have been outstanding.
This year, Mike McGraw, who has been heavily involved with the pupil voice, facilitator Sem Simpkins from Schools Council UK, and myself organised the summit – however, we merely played a supervisory role on the day.
The day began with an introduction from Sem and was followed by the first workshop entitled The Role of the Student Council. Prior to the event, we became aware that many students were unsure of the duties and expectations of both the council as a whole and themselves as individual representatives, and this workshop was designed to address that.
The second 45-minute workshop, Effective Decision Making Processes, aimed to highlight the importance of democratic processes, united voices, clarity of reasoning and the essential nature of adapting to a changing context.
Before lunch there were two more workshops: Talk vs Discussion, which highlighted the differences between informal “talk” and formal “discussion” and Effective Meeting and Planning Strategies, which examined meeting strategies and also aided students’ understanding of how to create and follow a successful action plan, not only for events but for specific council tasks in general.
After lunch the students gathered in their school groups for an “action planning” session where they were asked to put into practice the things they had learned in the morning session and create an action plan for the forthcoming year.
The schools each fed their ideas back to the group as a whole. Our 6th-formers acted as facilitators for the workshops and co-ordinated the change of sessions, action planning and all feedback. The summit was officially closed by an address from Helen Jenner, the director of children’s services for Barking and Dagenham.
All secondary schools in the borough were represented at the event which signifies a strong commitment within the borough to raising the effectiveness of pupil voice. In the past, students have become frustrated to find their voices falling on deaf ears; at All Saints we are very proud to be leading the way in efforts towards a collaborative solution. We feel that it is important not only to seek out the views and input of the young people we teach, but to listen to and respect their voices also.
Through the summit we have established greater networking links between the secondary schools in the borough and developed a more collaborative working environment. The students have also benefited significantly; giving them ownership of their councils, the decisions they choose to make, and the activities they choose to pursue has resulted in a distinct sense of empowerment.
In order to achieve our goal of raising the profile and effectiveness of pupil voice we need support from all schools and school councils in the borough. Effectiveness will not be realised over night, it is something that we will all need to work on together for an extended period of time.
It is imperative that we take the first steps on this road now and ensure that we encourage our young people to speak up – and that we listen to them when they do. There have already been calls from many of the students to continue the summit and make it an annual or even bi-annual event, with many schools offering to host the next one – a very encouraging outcome indeed.
CAPTION: Talking shop: A workshop session takes place during the All Saints’ Student Council Summit, attended by 80 young people
Danni Almond is LEC manager and pupil voice co-ordinator at All Saints Catholic School in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.