We have just had our first Student Council of the year and it was fascinating. Twenty pupils had been elected to represent their class, from Year 2 to Year 6, and this first meeting had a quite mischievous agenda; I wanted to explore what would happen if they were left to their own devices to self-organise. What principles would be deployed by the kids, ageing from just 6 up to 11? Would they display the values that got them elected in their classes? Would this be a Corbynian ‘new politics’ of cooperation or would we witness a Malcolm-Tucker-managing-a-reshuffle level of Machiavellian behaviour?
I rounded up all the kids and brought them to the conference room. I welcomed them warmly, showed them the agenda and explained that this is the last agenda I will be writing; the next ones will be written by them. I told the council that from this point on, my main role is to facilitate rather than to lead. This first session would be about the children finding a way to organise themselves into roles. Whilst they would have the ability to change the role structure later, should they opt to do so, I set the first expectations so they can find their feet.
The task was to organise their group of 20 (plus one child without voting rights acting as Clerk) into the following roles.
Leader – Responsible for chairing the meetings and preparing the agenda, as well as overseeing the effective work of the four work groups. Can delegate to Deputy Leader. Spokesperson for the Council.
Deputy Leader – Responsible for supporting the chairing and agenda of council meetings, as well as distributing the agendas to all Councillors ahead of the meeting. Also oversees the effective work of the four work groups. Deputy Spokesperson for the Council. Becomes Leader if the Leader is unavailable, or if they receive a Vote of No Confidence from more than 50% of Councillors.
Media Group – These children are responsible for creating media content about the life of the school on behalf of pupils. This could include something like a Newspaper, blog, vlog, photo essay, films, interviews. They give information each month for the main School Newsletter, as well as anything they produce themselves.
Communications Group – These children have responsibility for being the ‘Face’ of the council in school. They are expected to have a presence in assemblies, talking with pupils about the work of Council and holding ‘rallies’ to inform pupils. Communications group also meet termly with the Headteacher, Caretaker and Kitchen Staff.
Research Group – These children prepare short surveys, interviews and small-scale research projects to identify ideas for future policy changes. They research into pupil voice, and collect evidence to support their recommendations, and the ideas of the Council.
Charities and Fundraising Group – These children oversee all pupil-led fundraising in the school, and are responsible for ensuring there is no ‘rogue’ fundraising taking place. Each term, children decide to support one local charity and one international charity; these two charities will receive an equal split of any donations and collections undertaken during the term.
I went through this information and had simplified summaries out on the meeting table. Then I told them
“And now it is up to you to find a fair way to decide who does what. I don’t want you to speak to me for the next fifteen minutes, or until everything is decided. I am going to be watching carefully. Off you go.”
Immediately, about 8 of the children, aged from 6 to 11, all began calling out that they wanted to be Leader. The girl who would eventually become Leader immediately stood up and spoke to one of the other children,
“Right we need to have some kind of vote. You, could you pass me some paper.”
She immediately took to the role of organiser. Three of the Year 5 girls who also wanted to do it then began to mirror her, encouraging other children to be quiet and trying to get a voting system going.
The boy next to me, a Year 4, quite quietly turned to me and to the boy next to him and said “I am going to be leader.”
She-Who-Would-Be-Leader got a list together of all the children who wanted to be leader, and included herself on the list at the end. She got the Y2 children to go first. For the first speaker, the children listened to each other and clapped respectfully. But by the time the third speaker spoke, the Year 2 children were loudly having their own conversation and the older children paid him no attention.
As I listened, the boy in Year 3 nervously but with lots of clear thought explained why he should be leader. Unlike the other children, who spoke about themselves and their personal qualities, this boy spoke about ideas for making school better. He began to stutter and looked at me nervously; it was as though every child had stopped listening, so I smiled and nodded him along encouragingly. He finished and I began to clap just because I couldn’t bear seeing his little crestfallen face as everyone ignored him, in what was a really considerate and thoughtful little speech.
Next up was the kid next to me. This boy is fairly new to English, and is in that beautiful stage of language development where he has started to realise that he is getting it; rather than struggling most of the time for words, he is now able to communicate quite fluently most of the time, and is tripped up only by unfamiliar words. He is a quirky and popular boy who makes a lot of his classmates laugh because of his confidence.
When it was his turn to speak, he threw his coat to the floor and took to the empty space in the room. He glided around the space dramatically as he spoke, and the younger children began laughing at him.
Implicitly, the group dynamic made it OK to laugh at this boy and devalue his contribution because they thought he was just clowning about. One of the Councillors shouted out, heckling him,
“You can’t be the leader if you are not serious.”
This absolutely stopped him in his tracks. He trailed off, his voice faltering. The kids clapped and moved on quickly and he came to sit back down next to me. He didn’t look at me, but I watched him shuffle quietly beside me, chewing his lip.
Whilst his delivery may not have been conventional, his language was less fluent due to his comparatively earlier stage of language acquisition, and whilst he was making people laugh, it was wrong to say he didn’t take it seriously. He was the one child who kept finding me in the playground all last week talking about the School Council and on his desk in front of him, he was the one child who had planned a speech. I read it over his shoulder and got a lump in my throat.
hello my name is ______ I think I shoot be the leader I am not bad
at all I just so exsitit what i will do is leasen to your things that you want to do i will help everyone and thenko for leasen
And then, at the side, after he had spoken, he has scribbled on the page and written,
its so bad why oh why
I had to break my rule of non-involvement again to pat him on the shoulder and tell him he did really well, but without much outward display of it, he was clearly quietly crushed.
The eventual leader got up and did her speech and it was so relaxed, confident and self-assured. She was essentially saying that she has all the skills needed, she will work well with everyone and that she is the safe pair of hands and the only person who ought really to be doing the job.
Once she had finished, she ushered herself and all the other candidates outside so that all the Councillors who did not stand for election could vote privately.
As the door closed, the child who was serving as Clerk stood up of his own accord, having just been chilling out watching proceedings with me throughout since he doesn’t have voting privileges. He repeated the list and got everyone to do a hands-up vote.
The leader was elected by a landslide.
Her words on the situation.
“I feel like I’ve been given a great opportunity to take charge and to help others. We want to achieve many things through our working groups.”
After the meeting, I brought together the new Leader and the boy who wrote the note so that they could talk about how they both felt in the meeting. It is important that leaders understand the emotional climate of those they work with, and that they understand the powerful impact that their words can have on others. They shook hands and moved on, and our unsuccessful leader with the note now looks forward to hosting some kind of School TV show.
The quietly self-assured Year 3 child who was ignored by the group will hopefully soldier on. I spoke to him after the session too, to let him know that he did a phenomenal speech and that I was looking forward to seeing what he can contribute. He nodded silently and ran off.
In a few weeks, I am taking them to the Why? What’s Happening For The Young? Festival, and then on to Westminster.
It will be an interesting year.