Listening to Children: A critique of a school-student relationship

My article from

Children should be seen but not heard

– 15th Century English Proverb

The old English proverb may have been around since the 15th Century, but just because it’s ‘tradition’ – a word whose meaning is itself unclear – doesn’t mean it’s a ‘tradition’ that should be upheld. Rather, like all other practices, it is something the each and every one of us should consider for ourselves. It essentially calls for children to make themselves presentable, but to keep quiet about their thoughts and opinions. For a lack of a better term, I would say this way of thinking is bollocks; or for our American friends, bullocks. The clearest case-study is the place where we spend almost a quarter of our day; or in the case of UWC AC which is a boarding school, all day; the school.

During my twelve years of education in four separate schools, I have seen a range of different approaches to student inputs in the way the school operates. True enough, student involvement at a primary level has little if any significance or effect. I would be the first to admit that I can’t even remember the issues that were brought up at Student Council while I was in primary school, despite me having represented my class for three of my four years there. Quite simply, the vast majority of students do not have the knowledge and ability to contribute meaningfully to the school’s operation when they are barely eleven. Certainly, having structures such as a Student Council is a hugely beneficial learning experience for students, but the reality of it is that there is little that they can contribute.

The thing that scares me is when this approach is extended into secondary schools. It’s easy to say that we are only one year older, twelve instead of eleven. But that creates a paradox where we will always be only one year older and never reach the imaginary level of mental capacity to take an active part in the school’s decision making process. No transition is ever smooth, and the process of growing up will take time, maturity will certainly not be ascertained overnight, but NONE of that means that we won’t reach the level needed to contribute meaningfully to the school management.

Student Councils are the most commonly cited avenues for student voice, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the only forum. During my time at SIS, I was invited to interview potential new staff members for the posts as head of section, vice-principal and principal. That a student interview panel was even created is a commendable act that is testimony to how much further SIS has gone compared to other educational institutions. Whether our written comments were actually seriously considered is another question. On most occasions, the final decision was in line with our comments. However, I vividly recall one time when we voted heavily against a vice-principal candidate only to find out a few weeks later than he had been selected.

And even when Student Council exists, they should be much more than just lip-service, they need to be taken seriously by students and by staff. SIS had a student council by the time I arrived in 2005, its introduction owing to Mr. John Wray. It was indeed a forum of great discussion, but I can’t help but wonder how relevant those conversations were. Certainly, a lot of time, effort and diligence was put into debating the merits or demerits of issues such as water-fountains, recycling bins and lo-and-behold… canteen food. I am in no-way attempting to discourage this kind of discussion, but they certainly served to distract the council from discussing larger issues with a wider and more pronounced effect.

During my five years at SIS, a fair number of major changes were made to school life. The octopus cards, the new school timetable, the introduction of the CLC followed by the introduction of moodle as well as the heavily criticized 1:1 laptop program. Just as I was leaving SIS, it was announced that renovations would occur to create a new ‘5th floor atrium’. None of these changes are inherently bad for students, but the unifying theme is that none of the decisions to implement these changes truly involved student consultation.

The new octopus card system was a good innovation, but problems such as long queues at the start of the day and card readers in locations that rarely used are problems that would easily have been picked up on had the school asked students where the handiest locations would have been. The introduction of the CLC never involved consulting with students on how it could be best used, or even whether we needed such a system. Ultimately, with few teachers using it and students entirely confused over its purpose, the idea bombed. In 2010, the introduction of moodle went through a similar process, again with little student involvement. It was only after it was launched and a huge wave of comments flooded the system that subtle changes were slowly made.

Most vivid for me personally was my experience with the plan for a ‘5th floor atrium’. Until the day an email was sent to all students, I didn’t even know such a proposal existed. There were no plans to consult or even discuss the issue with students until I emailed the rest of Student Council, politely requesting a meeting to reconsider the issue. At that meeting, we were told the details of the project and that it had already been approved. I was gob smacked when I was asked to be involved as a ‘student representative’ on the project, a job description that turned out to involve meeting with Mr. Wray after the architect had left and giving a ‘recommendation’ as to which design to choose. The shocking thing was that despite my many suggestions for students to be consulted and my indications that many students were staunchly opposed to the project, absolutely no move was made to either ask or even inform the students about the project bar a few posters.

I am a big fan of ‘Student Councils’, I was on three in Quarry Bay School, two while at SIS and I am now on the Student Council of UWC AC. The discussions in these meetings are both fruitful and useful, but on multiple occasions, I have been disappointed by the school’s unwillingness to talk directly to students, about not only the small issues, but also the big issues.

We can’t just sit and wait for people to come engage us, if anything; the decision makers are far busier than we are. The process of engaging on multiple issues and multiple levels is a mutual one, we as students have as much responsibility to reach out to decision makers as they have to talk to us. Whether through a structured forum such as Student Council, or through a personal means like a blog, students need to show they care and are prepared to put forth substantive ideas, not just complaints. That’s why I am honoured to be the first guest writer, and supportive of initiatives such as Feedback SIS; they represent an active desire by students to be heard. And so they should.

I hope dearly, for my sake and yours, that listening to ‘children’ becomes the norm, not just the exception. It involves a school’s management changing its practices, but it also involves us showing that we care about those issues.



  1. Hi Paul, this is a great article and as you say a credit to your old school for asking you to write it and hosting a blog to put such things on.
    I think you maybe underestimate your impact at primary level, or at least the impact primary pupils can have. I have worked with the student council of the primary school of which I am a governor to assist them in interviewing prospective new headteachers. Their opinions were considered, thoughtful and, I am told, very useful to the appointments panel.
    However, even where people’s responses aren’t so considered, in a community those reactions can be just as useful, you need to be aware that people are angry, upset or scared, even if they don’t eloquently express why.
    It’s easy for schools to ensure that the student council only engages with those students who’ll give the kinds of answers that the adults in the school want to hear – one way we do this is by doing as I have done and differentiating between those responses that are ‘considered’ and ‘intelligent’ i.e. those that agree with our own perspectives. As you say, students need to take it upon themselves to stand in the way of this: to insert themselves in to discussions to which they have not been invited; to express views and voices that may be uncomfortable for staff to hear.
    In my experience, when this happens, the value to learners and educators is quickly apparent and the culture of the school changes. Openness and inclusion becomes the norm.

  2. Excellent post!

    I’m interested in student councils. Is Primary School age to young for such a program to reap strong rewards? Is it best left to High School?

    1. I can’t see anything bad about having a student council at primary level. But as I explained, I don’t see it having a major or significant impact on an institutions running. At a primary school level, students aren’t really mature enough to present well-thought-through opinions on major issues. Nevertheless, not only is the experience a good one, it can give students a feeling of reward with regards to how smaller, minor issues should be addressed.

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