An interview with a School Council Coordinator
Helen Blachford, a teacher from Priory School, Portsmouth, kindly agreed to tell us about her experience of school councils.
She’s been involved with school councils for ten years! And we first met her when she came along to our Smart School Council Masterclass course in May…
Can you tell us a little about yourself, Helen?
I am a Curriculum Leader for PSCHE in an inner city secondary school in the heart of Portsmouth. I initially trained as a Business Studies teacher and this is what I taught for my first 4 years of teaching.
I had an interest though in PSHE and Citizenship education and so this is the direction I headed in – first as Head of PSHE/Citizenship/Careers at a school in Fareham, Hampshire and then moving to my present role 8 years ago. My present role encompasses PSHE and Citizenship but also a responsibility for School Council.
How long have you been teaching for and what’s been your experience of school councils and student voice?
I have been teaching for almost 20 years and have been involved in some way in the work of school councils and student voice for about 10 years.
This has included as a tutor running tutor councils, leading whole school council, learning partners with a pupil observing my lesson and giving feedback and more recently an ‘Article 12 Group’ with pupils driving forward teaching and learning about the Convention on the Rights of the Child – culminating in the achievement of Level 1 Rights Respecting School Award, June 2013.
What’s been good and bad about it? What did you struggle with?
Involvement in both school council and student voice can have a powerful impact on the engagement of pupils with their school community in its widest sense and in addition their learning. If we can give pupils an opportunity to make real decisions and see that they can affect their school and make it a better place for the young people who attend it, then it is very empowering. For staff involved it is without a doubt a rewarding experience and allows you to build successful relationships with pupils. Pupils learn about society and democracy and can develop skills such as: communication, leadership, teamwork, and social skills. A further knock on affect is that pupils have greater respect/empathy gained from understanding how their own school works.
The struggles for me have always been support given to the school council has been limited, almost why should we listen to pupils views – education is done to them and collaboration has in the past often been a paper exercise, ticking a box. In addition my experience has been of staff-led school councils with little real opportunity for pupils to really achieve things for themselves! Of course being given the time to make this happen can be an issue.
What happened on the Masterclass that you came on?
The secondary Smart School Council Masterclass I attended was a revelation! I met with a range of secondary teachers all with some responsibility for school council/student voice, from a variety of settings and with a range of experience. I think we learnt a lot from just listening to each other’s ideas and picking out what would work for us.
The training we took part in was fast paced, fun, and above all had practical application for back at school. From ice-breakers we could use with school council (all with a distinct purpose) and training tools which can be used with school councils to documents to support teachers and pupils in establishing effective school councils whatever our setting. Brilliant resources were offered to us with clear instructions on how to use them – ‘picking a project’ to work on, how to take quick minutes and a simple but effective tool to train pupils on how to run a meeting using a ‘snakes and ladders’ idea to name just a few!
We heard from one school (staff and pupils) who were able to show us the true value of school council and student voice – they were informative, confident and real advocates for why all schools should have student voice at the heart of everything they do. I wanted my pupils to have this opportunity and to be able to have the confidence to present their ideas and their achievements to others, to make a real difference for the young people of my school.
I can honestly say, hand on heart, this was the best money ever spent by any school I have worked in on CPD for me. It inspired me to take action!
What have you done since the course? How did the course help you?
The course gave me a clear vision of what I wanted for the pupils at my school and practical ideas of how I could achieve that. So, on the train home I hatched a plan and began writing a proposal which I would present to my line-manager (who is an Assistant Head) and her line-manager (who is Deputy Head). That evening, still buzzing from the day and my head full of ideas I wrote the proposal and emailed the Assistant Head and Deputy Head telling them what a fabulous day I had had and I wanted to meet them re: proposals for the future of school council and pupil voice.
The next morning I met with the Deputy Head and he loved the ideas – and talk about ‘striking whilst the iron is hot’ he phoned and booked me a slot at the next SLT Meeting to present my ideas and get the go ahead. He also phoned the Finance Manager and secured an annual budget of £800.00 for the school council – an idea I had taken back from the day.
I presented my ideas to SLT on 14 May, and as the Deputy Head predicted, they loved them too. In fact so much so that the Headteacher used the ‘Quick Minutes’ template during the meeting to make notes!
Progress since then has been rapid:
- All 50 Tutor Groups have all held formal elections and elected 2 representatives who sit on Year Councils.
- Year Leaders are all on board in assisting Year Councils – chairing the initial meetings and training pupils in the use of the ‘How to Run a Meeting’ resource.
- Year Councils have all met, have elected Chairs and Deputy Chairs, and have decided on what their priorities are using the ‘Picking a Project’ sheets. They have also elected 3 representatives who will attend the Whole School Council – each Year Council decided to send their Chair and Deputy Chair + one other. Once the Chair was elected at the Year Council Meeting they took over the Chair from the Year Leader.
- Whole School Council have met and the Deputy Head attended the meeting. They elected a Chair, Deputy Chair, Secretary and Treasurer. They have already requested a meeting with the Finance Manager to discuss their project proposals – the Deputy Head informed them about some of the plans in hand with regard to some of their ideas which it appears will lead to ‘quick wins’ for them.
- The school has paid for a day at a local outdoor centre which offers team-building activities – the Whole School Council are going to undertake the team building activities in the morning and continue with some training in the afternoon. I will be using resources from the course I attended to deliver the training.
- Establishment of a ‘Pupil Leadership Board’ – bringing together all the elements of pupil representation and pupil leadership already happening in school but with no real cohesion. This will mirror SLT and be chaired by Head Boy and Head Girl. Members will be elected by their various groups (e.g. Peer Mentors, School Council, Sport Council etc.) and will meet in the Headteacher’s office once per half term, with lunch provided! Members will also be mentored by a member of SLT. Again an idea taken from the course – this time from the school who spoke to us about how student council/student voice worked in their school.
How do you feel about your school council and student voice now?
I now feel much more confident about the future of school council and student voice – SLT are on board and that can only help! Having worked with the Whole School Council already I am excited for the future!
What are you still struggling with?
- Ensuring all tutors are on board and give time for the Tutor Councils to run effectively – I think pupils will play a big part in this in the future as they have already seen the power that they have to be agents of change.
- Getting the message out to everyone the value of student council and student voice.
- Ensuring ‘all’ pupils feel that they have the opportunity to contribute.
What do you think of the Smart School Councils Community?
I think Smart Schools Council is a fantastic idea. It’s a place where ideas/good practice can be shared. I learnt so much and gained so much in just one day – and I have continued to learn by accessing the resources available online. I know there is someone out there who, if they don’t know the answer, will be able to find out or point me towards where I can find the answer!
Thanks for telling about your experience, Helen!
Helen is kindly agreed to update us on her progress, so look out for those in the future. If any other teachers or students have a question for her, just pop them in a comment below and I’m sure she’d answer them.