Published on August 2nd, 2013 |
by Joe Lo
We Interview a 16-Year Old Hoping to Transform Secondary Schools
What were you doing when you were sixteen? Doing your GCSEs? Drinking White Ace in a park? Probably. Trying to form the UK’s first student union for secondary school students? Probably not. Well luckily for today’s school students, Luke Shore is.
He’s a sixth-form student at Toot Hill College in the town of Bingham in Nottinghamshire and we talked to him over Skype last week about why Britain, unusually in Europe, has no such pupils’ union and how such a union (or association) would work.
So why do we need a school student-association?
Well because there is a democratic deficit in the British education system. The vast majority of stakeholders are represented. Teachers, headteachers, governers, the government and local authorities are all represented but students themselves, the subject of the education system, the people who the entire education system is designed for, don’t actually have a single, collective, cohesive voice to represent their own interests. So it’s about facilitating the direct, self-representation of school students that is currently lacking in the British education system which has been long set-up in many other European countries.
Which countries have a school student-union?
At least twenty-six European countries so Britain is lagging way behind the rest of Europe in this regard. Some countries have multiple school student unions. Finland has four, Denmark has five, France has lots… I don’t even know how many. So why do you think Britain doesn’t yet have a school student union? That’s a very good question. Whenever I raise this issue, people seem surprised it doesn’t already exist. It might have something to do with the organisation of our education system. In some regards, our system of exams and qualifications is competitive and quite individualistic. It’s all about if you can get the best grade and your grade only means something when compared to other people. Your A or your B only means something if it’s better than somebody else’s, this individualistic educational culture makes it quite difficult for people to join together to talk about their common interests.
So what sort of things would a school student association campaign on?
It would be completely down to the school students who made up the organisation so it’s impossible to say. It would be an entirely grassroots, student-led organisation so I can’t tell you what any of the policy would be because it doesn’t exist yet. However, the kind of areas it might work in would be things that are important to students like the curriculum, examinations, assesments. Also the hidden costs and fees of education which are things students have to pay for like stationery, books, school meals and school trips. Other things might include campaigns to end discrimination of, and between, students. For example, against racism, homophobia and bullying in schools. Perhaps there could be a campaign so that students know their rights in their own education system and within their societies.
So how would the association be organised?
There are a variety of possible structures. One is a federal structure, which is used in Estonia and Lithuania, whereby each school council would send a representative to a national body. In Denmark and Finland, school councils are organised into regional bodies, which are then coordinated on a national scale. Alternatively, the association could be a confederation of regional student organisations, as in Spain. It depends on what’s most appropriate for the resources and level of engagement of students.
So how would it be funded?
That’s a good question. Like any organisation there would be a variety of funding models. For example, it could work on grants from charitable trusts and foundations, support from youth engagement charities or through other educational stakeholders sharing their resources.
What power would it have to advance students’ interests?
The level of influence it would have would depend on the level of engagement it had from the student population. If students rallied behind the idea and you had thousands of enthusiastic participants then it could become a real force for change and drive the education agenda.
How much support have you had for the idea?
The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I can’t recall a single negative response. Teachers are enthusiastic about the idea because they want to engage their students in their own education and this kind of representation would enable that. Students are always keen to have a louder voice because they often feel unrepresented and ignored. If they are consulted, the issues they are consulted about or the weight of their voice is too tokenistic. Sometimes they don’t feel like full, equal actors in their own community so they’re always enthusiastic about the chance to take responsibility for their own education. Students are engaged. Students care. Students matter. The educational community needs to give students themselves the opportunity to express their collective voice.
Have any prominent organisations supported the idea?
The European Commission, [the executive branch of the European Union] have said to me “involving pupils in school student unions has been shown to be a good way of informing and engaging young people on wider democratic issues. Edward Timpson, the Children and Families Minister has strong interest in the idea and the NUS President, Toni Pearce, has lent her support.
So what can people do to help create this association?
At a local level, we need students to strengthen their representation within their own schools and we need teachers and senior management to evaluate their democratic processes to work out how they can ensure their students feel listened to, feel responsible and feel empowered. This way we can build the foundations of a culture of democratic school student representation. We need a broad base of support from a wide range of teachers, parents and students. Individuals can start by organising and acting locally, in their own schools and communities. Post on Facebook, tweet on #voiceforstudents. You can get in contact with me via email (email@example.com) or on Twitter (@LukeShore).
What do you need to succeed?
We need partners to come aboard to facilitate its realisation and a large, enthusiastic, engaged group of school students to make it a reality.