School Councils – misunderstandings, misuse and missed opportunities for learning excellence

Although this could be one of the most important articles on my website in relation to improving the effectiveness of learning in schools, its subject does not feature at all in my book, ‘Learning Matters‘. The reason is that the experience of developing the understandings about School Councils that I will try to communicate in this article are a consequence of my very personal journey through the headship of the last school in which I taught, from which I retired in 2003.

I did not want to write a deeply personal book in relation to my headship school, which was closed in 2009 along with two other larger schools as part of a disastrous academisation plan forced onto the town of Barrow-in-Furness in the face of unprecedented local opposition. A time may come to write the history of that conflict, but that time is not now and it is a task for someone else. It is not the subject of this article.

The school in question, my last headship school, was The Alfred Barrow School, the oldest secondary school in the town of Barrow-in-Furness, having its origins as the Barrow ‘Higher Grade School’ when it opened in 1888, evolving successively into Barrow Grammar School, the Alfred Barrow Secondary Modern (Boys and Girls) Schools and finally the Alfred Barrow (comprehensive) school.

I became headteacher in 1989. The school was not an immediately attractive proposition and I was one of only three called for interview. One of the candidates then withdrew, leaving just two of us. Like most schools at that time it had suffered chronic under-investment in every aspect of its functioning since the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. The buildings, although structurally sound and otherwise fit for purpose, were in a poor state with weather penetration and the consequences of some misguided and poorly designed ‘modernisations’ and extensions carried out at various times over the post-war period.

In 1988, Cumbria County Council attempted to close the school. This was fiercely resisted not only by local people but also by the heads and governors of two of the other three non-religious secondary schools in the town. This was probably influenced not so much out of solidarity with Alfred Barrow, but from a desire not to take on its catchment area, which contained, and still contains, some of the poorest and most socially deprived electoral wards in England, located in the centre of this northern, industrial, white working class town.

The local resistance campaign was successful, the closure plan was dropped and I became the next (but not the last) headteacher. For me it was love at first sight and together with mainly the staff I inherited, rather than subsequently appointed, the pupils and the parents, some remarkable successes were achieved. Most of these were in large part enabled through the Alfred Barrow School Council and the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ on which it was based.

The staff were a mixture of those that had served in the former Secondary Modern Alfred Barrow Boys, very traditional and in some respects typically ‘brutal’ (but nevertheless fondly remembered), Alfred Barrow Girls, pioneering and educationally forward looking, and the teachers from the other schools that had emerged from the comprehensive re-organisation of the late 1970s when there was competition for all the jobs in the new comprehensives, with many of the unsuccessful applicants from the predecessor schools ending up at Alfred Barrow.

Crucially there had also been some key appointments to the newly designated Alfred Barrow comprehensive school from successful established comprehensive systems in other parts of the country, of which I was the latest example, having been Vice Principal, and for a while Acting Principal, of a very large rural/suburban Leicestershire 14-18 Community College, where the culture could not have been more different.

The Alfred Barrow staff that I inherited contained sufficient good teachers, with some outstandingly good, to support a staffing policy based on collegiality, respect for past experience and evolution of practice based on a shared decision making structure. The only drastic policy change made immediately was the designation of all parts of the school as strictly ‘No Smoking’. Previously the staff room was a smoke-filled fug and senior staff including the Head and the Deputy Head smoked in their offices.  Evolution rather than revolution was a largely successful approach. I enjoyed overwhelmingly  strong, if not unanimous, staff support throughout my 14 year headship.

The backgrounds of the pupils and their parents were, with a few exceptions, the same as mine, classic white industrial working class. Barrow is a former steelmaking town with a long-standing shipbuilding industry, which remains the dominant employer and the driver of the local economy. I do not perceive my class background as in any way an advantage. The M.Ed degree, which I gained from Leicester University from a one year full time secondment in 1981/82, certainly was.

Like many such inner urban schools, classroom relationships involved a considerable degree of disputatious feuding and bullying that significantly disrupted learning. However, much inherent goodness, kindness, humour, charm and co-operation came with it. This typically applied to parents as well as pupils. I had previously served in some excellent comprehensive schools with some outstanding heads that had a deep understanding of education. I understood from playing my own part in such good practice that a simplistic, harsh discipline-based response to pupil disruption was counter productive in terms of the quality of classroom relationships needed for deep learning.

If our school was to be successful, given its very unpromising intake ability profile, we would have to aim far higher than mere compliance on the part of our pupils. My university experiences had led me believe in the ideas of ‘plastic intelligence‘ promoted by Michael Shayer and Philip Adey. Like me, they had both been science teachers who had grappled with the problem of ‘difficulty’. How can school students be developed so as to understand ‘hard stuff’, such that the cognitive gains that result from the learning process also boost subject-transferable general intelligence?

The Cumbria LEA introduced Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) screening in Y7, primarily to drive ‘additional resources’ in the new Local Management funding formula for its schools. This served us well. It was a CATs-led, rather than a ‘proxy’ FSM-led ‘pupil premium’ driven directly by developmental learning difficulties, not social deprivation. The Alfred Barrow admission cohorts never varied much from a mean CATs score of 85 (-1 SD). This placed the average pupil admitted at the 16th percentile. In a year group of 100 there would typically be only 10-12 pupils with above average (100+) CATs scores. Despite that pattern we always had, scattered throughout the year-groups, a small number of very able pupils in the 120 -130+ CAT range. The senior Education Welfare Officer and a high proportion of the school’s employees, including teachers, admitted their own children to the school. This included our youngest child. In 1989, when I took up the headship,  our middle child was admitted to Barrow Sixth Form College and the eldest commenced her degree course at Sheffield University.

Many experienced educational leaders have since told me that they have never seen a more challenging intake ability profile. The foundation principles of our curriculum response to this challenge are described, explained and justified in my book, ‘Learning Matters’. It is based on our view that the primary necessity was to develop the ‘plastic intelligence‘ of our pupils so as to enable them to benefit from a fully comprehensive ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum for all pupils in which academic rigour was never compromised, but adapted and exploited as the medium for developing cognitive ability. We were as much concerned in our unrelenting pursuit of cognitive growth with achieving E, D, B, A and A* grades as with C grades at GCSE, with all pupils regarded as having equal entitlement to a high quality, developmental education and the opportunities so provided. The curriculum was based on that required by the Conservative government’s TVEI (Technical and Vocational Initiative) that had been followed in my Leicestershire Upper School. The basic curriculum principle was to provide a non-gender specific broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils that included science and technology subjects. There were no specifically vocational elements pre-16, the idea being to enable all students unrestricted access to all post-16 career pathways. The Alfred Barrow curriculum followed this pattern. There were no 4 x C grade GCSE GNVQs/BTECs offered at any time during my headship.  

It was widely suspected that the LEA did not actually expect the school to succeed, and they arranged a full HMI Inspection in 1990 only six months into my headship. Subsequent OfSTED inspections followed in 1995 and 1998. These were then very thorough and involved large teams for a full week. All were passed with some ease, the 1998 Inspection report was especially strong, delaying the next inspection until 2004, a year after my retirement. This was also passed. The first and last OfSTED inspection to be failed was in 2007, under my successor, just as the school was being identified for an academisation plan, which would bring ‘Building Schools for the Future’ funding to the LEA. Coincidently, the other two schools under the same consideration also got into trouble with OfSTED during the same period.

In 2002, Alfred Barrow was subject to major enlargement and refurbishment of facilities driven by its over-subscription and projected future demand for places. This £multi-million investment, together with similar large sums spent on the other Barrow secondary schools, provided an outstanding quality of accommodation for all of the town’s schools in a uniform 11-16 school/Sixth Form College/FE College  system that was working very well in terms of progression to employment, Further and Higher Education. The new Cumbria LEA was created in 1974. In my view it had done a good job in Barrow up to the election of the 1997 Labour government. Things then got progressively worse as the usually Labour dominated County Council implemented the Blair education policies.

The Academisation plan that emerged in 2007, whose Funding Agreement was eventually signed off by Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls, involved the complete demolition of the two other schools for speculative private housing. Alfred Barrow only avoided demolition because its main 1888 building is Grade II listed. The latest plan is for the site to become an NHS GP-led Health Centre.

On taking up the headship in 1989 many curriculum and pastoral projects soon got under way. These always involved the full decision making structure of the school organised into a hierarchical  framework of Department and Pastoral Teams, Pastoral and Curriculum Senior Committees and the School Policy Committee. All the teachers in the school were involved. This structure drew strongly on my Leicestershire Community College experience. The ‘foundation’ projects were the creation and development of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’, which became the bedrock on which all school policies including the curriculum were subsequently based. The Alfred Barrow School Council (students) and The Alfred Barrow School Association (governors and parent volunteers), were the first manifestations of the Equal Opportunities Policy.

The School Council structure was designed as follows.

  1. All KS4 Forms would elect Form Representatives.
  1. All KS4 students together with everybody on the school payroll including the teachers, administrative and catering staff, cleaners and site managers, all of whom we employed directly under Local Management, formed the electorate for choosing the four principle School Council Officers, on a ‘one person one vote basis’, with no gerrymandering by the Senior Management Team. These key elected student officer posts formed the Chairs (one boy & one girl) and Vice Chairs of the new School Council.
  1. KS3 Forms elected representatives to the ‘Lower School Forum’, with each Form having its own designated KS4 School Council ‘Liaison Representative’ to provide advice, support and a direct link to the School Council for younger pupils. Senior staff support was provided by the Pastoral Heads of Upper School(KS4) and Lower School(KS3) and their deputies, all co-ordinated by the Deputy Headteacher (pastoral), who was a major driving force and inspiration behind the whole project. She had formerly taught in Alfred Barrow Girl’s School. Her direct involvement clearly established the School Council as a major priority of the school giving it status in the eyes of students, parents and staff. This was a very important factor in its success.

Once formed, the School Council decided its own agenda for change and school improvement. The first and most important project was to construct an ‘Anti-bullying policy’ and a structure for resolving bullying and relationship problems in accordance with the principles of the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This was seen as the key to eliminating disruption to learning and laying the foundations for the metacognitive and collaborative learning approaches needed for the developmental pedagogy of the school.

Various other projects came along and evolved over time. Not all were confined to school-based matters. The Alfred Barrow School Council worked with the Barrow Education Welfare Service and some local LEA officers to create the Barrow Youth Forum involving KS4 student representation from all the schools. This met in the town’s Civic Centre/theatre complex called, ‘The Forum’. The Youth Forum was supported by Barrow Borough Council and assisted by some Borough and County Councillors and a very forward looking local Police Superintendent. The Alfred Barrow School Council very largely ran the town’s Youth Forum. The local ‘Furness Lions’ charity was also a strong supporter. It ran an annual  evening ‘Sheltered Shopping’ event in the local Asda in which School Council students helped older people with mobility problems do their shopping. Staff and the Alfred Barrow School Association also assisted. Asda were very happy with it. This was never entirely without its challenges. If you have read ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’, by Sue Townsend then the ‘Bert’ character may come to mind.

Sadly, nothing remotely like any of this now exists in the town.

Designated School Council members attended the regular meetings of Governor’s Sub-Committees along with parents from the Alfred Barrow School Association. The School Council Chairs attended the full formal Meetings of Governors.

It was very important to establish what the School Council was NOT.

 It was NOT a ‘prefect’ body.

 It was NOT a group of ‘trusties’ to do ‘chores’ for teachers.

 School council members did NOT supervise pupils or do any ‘duties’ under the supervision of teachers.

The major time commitment of all School Council members was to the ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’. This was initially in relation to its design and deciding on its method of operation and then its implementation, which was continuously demanding, but massively effective.

The School Council needed education and training. This was arranged in after-school sessions by the Deputy Head, who initially recruited some local professional counsellor experts to assist. These were paid for by the school. This later became an entirely in-house operation as expertise was developed.

Great importance was given to ‘Assertiveness Training’. The ‘passive/assertive/aggressive’ spectrum was explained and explored through role play and discussion. Our pupils were taught and trained in the skills needed to be assertive in all aspects of their lives. This empowered and enriched their relationships with peers, teachers and any out of school authority figures they may meet. It directly supported the developmental learning strategies of the school that involved ‘metacognition’, peer to peer and collaborative learning approaches like those now recognised as especially effective by the Education Endowment Foundation as explained here and here.

There was an annual residential School Council Training event that took place over a weekend in a four star hotel in nearby Grange-over-Sands, which specialised in ‘business conferences’. We had a close relationship with this hotel, whose owner strongly supported our school and its aims in relation to School Council Training. The hotel subsidised our annual training operation, which took place in the public and conference rooms of the hotel alongside other private guests and corporate users. All involved in the training enjoyed dinner in the public dining room of the hotel on the Saturday evening.

This was a tremendously educational and motivating experience for the students. It was also always a major PR coup for the school to be seen working in and sharing facilities alongside the corporate adult world and private guests, which occasionally included celebrities from the worlds of sport and entertainment. There was no charge to the students. The School Council and its work was financially supported by local businesses and various grants achieved from fund raising as well as through the CATs-driven LEA school funding formula. It was also central to the Alfred Barrow programme of the local Education Action Zone (EAZ) sponsored by Furness Building Society during its limited life.

What did our School Council achieve? Through its role in implementing the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ it transformed the entire culture of the school. The anti-bullying work was key. The issues related to the current controversy over sexual harassment of female students were well understood and addressed. Only the internet dimension is new. Such problems have always existed. Our own daughters suffered in the 1980s in their Leicestershire comprehensive schools.

School Council members and officers gained confidence, articulacy and personal skills of lifelong value and this informed and elevated the entire student and staff culture of the school. Such was our success that it became nationally recognised and our School Council Officers were invited to explain our approach through an address to MPs in the House of Commons in 1993 and again in 1995.

A very important effect on school culture related to how our more and less able students were perceived by their peers. Comprehensive schools are often accused of not protecting able, hard working students from bullying and attacks on their confidence and esteem from less able peers. Our most able School Council members and officers readily gained respect and esteem from peers through being able to independently demonstrate their accomplishments in public speaking, managing meetings, conflict resolution intervention and general wisdom and good sense.

The School Council was absolutely mixed ability in nature. Many students that received support in our SEN department, including a number with SEN Statements, were heavily involved. This gave our less academically  accomplished pupils the confidence to become engaged resulting in some astonishing transformations as it was perceived that mature good sense and wisdom could be developed and demonstrated by everybody. I could give examples of many cases of the latter, but will not, for fear of identifying individuals in their current adult lives in what remains a close-knit community.

There were some occasions when unfortunate choices did emerge from School Council Officer elections, which were never ‘fixed’ by the school. That’s democracy. Events then took their course and lessons were learned by all concerned. School students have peer group hierarchies driven by all sorts of social interactions lubricated by the vigorous, turbulent and richly hormonal cultural context of the age group. We were often surprised and delighted at the ‘unlikely’ individuals that emerged at the top of this hierarchy to be elected as School Council officers. This culture of respect and tolerance translated directly into the learning culture of the classroom. I was a teacher for more than thirty years and I have never seen relationships of this quality in any other school. OfSTED inspectors were always similarly impressed, with their judgements fully documented in their reports.

I fear that very little like it is now taking place in our increasingly marketised and academised education system. After I retired in 2003 I did some work with ‘School Councils UK’ and attended some training sessions that schools had paid for. The organisers were well meaning and tried hard, but compared to our Alfred Barrow work, they were pretty clueless, as were the usually junior staff that the schools had provided to accompany their pupils on these ‘training events’.

School Councils cannot be effectively imposed onto schools and their pupils as a result of an imposed DfE initiative and a day’s training.

To be successful they require a whole school approach to everything about a school. They do not fit with the GERM culture at all.

I will conclude with a selection from the many successful projects and initiatives that emerged through the participation and engagement of the School Council.

The Anti-Bullying Policy

This needs an article to itself

The adult education provision

We ran a programme of Evening Classes in co-operation with the Adult Learning provision of the County Council. This no longer exits. Our KS4 students were encouraged to join (free of charge) the adult GCSE English and maths classes, whose members of all ages often remarked on the value of such mixed generation classes. Sometimes one or two adults joined our GCSE art, sculpture and pottery GCSE Option groups for daytime classes. We enjoyed superb facilities.

The Basement Bar

This alcohol-free bar and leisure venue was located in the school basement. School Council were heavily involved in the design and running. A Bar Manager post was created and funded from the delegated school budget. It was open from 7.00 to 9.00pm on week nights overseen by the Site Manager present for the Adult education classes. This was open to students from other schools in the town and unlike the rest of the school had full disabled access. No serious trouble was ever experienced. This facility still physically exists unchanged in the ghostly boarded up basement of the school.

Study Club

This was the ‘extended curriculum’ of the school. It applied to the time from the end of the compulsory school day at 3.15, to 4.30pm, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The same time on Tuesdays was reserved  for all school staff meetings for which a schedule was published at the start of each new school year. By long-standing tradition the nearby shipyard closed at lunchtime on Fridays so there were never any after-school activities on Fridays.

Study Club attendance was open to all pupils of the school of all ages on a voluntary basis. Some of the KS4 curriculum was taught at this time. All pupils studied ‘Integrated Humanities’ and Double Award Science as part of the core curriculum. However additional optional GCSE classes in history, geography, physics, chemistry and biology were provided in Study Club time for those students who were considering taking these subjects at A Level. Some students took GCSE PE for which the theory parts were taught in Study Club time.

Study Club was also used for rehearsals for music and drama productions, sports team practise sessions and for Boys’ and Girls’ basketball matches in which Alfred Barrow competed in national league and cup competitions. A floodlit playground was used for the ‘go-cart club’, which manufactured and tested its own vehicles built in the Design & Technology Department. There were also floodlit inter-school Netball matches.

In the Lower School(KS3) there were educational Board Games like chess and Scrabble, not to be underestimated in value for pupils who would not have experienced playing them at home. Other school staff came up with various other special interest ‘Study Clubs’.

The voluntary nature of Study Club was important in relation to the quality of the learning and participation that took place. Attendance was encouraged through the issue of personal Study Club cards with spaces that could be ‘stamped’ to prove attendance. At the end of every school term there was a special Saturday coach trip to Preston for Study Club pupils with sufficient attendances and their parents. School staff and governors also participated. There was no charge for these trips. This is the closest the school ever came to the use of ‘behaviourist’ incentives.

The Breakfast Service

Breakfasts were provided from 8.30 until 9.00am every morning. A long queue outside the main entrance to the school always formed because on admission to the school a numbered school lunch ticket was issued. This determined the place in the lunch queue for the school meals service. By this means supervision of the dining hall was much simplified and reduced. There were no year group rotas for meal service times. The catering supervisor just checked the ticket numbers in the queue to ensure that the holders were in strict ticket number order with no queue jumpers. This meant that the first pupils in the Breakfast Club queue in the morning were also the first to be served for lunch. On arrival at school the pupils were usually greeted by a senior member of staff (often me) who would hand out the numbered tickets. These were retained at the lunchtime meal service till, to be issued again the next day. The system also suited later arrivals to school because those students would know roughly what time they would be served in the lunch queue and so could just turn up at the right time rather than have to wait in a long queue.

The Pelican Crossing near the rear gate of the school

This was provided only after a long School Council campaign of lobbying the County Council Traffic Department for a safe route to the nearby town centre shops.

There is much more, but I think readers will by now have got the picture.

Sadly all this has gone forever. The replacement Academy school provides nothing like it. Little recognisable appears to remain elsewhere in the marketised English education system and I don’t see it being a priority of the proposed universal academisation programme.

Reader comments to this article are welcomed.




This entry was posted in Blogs, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to School Councils – misunderstandings, misuse and missed opportunities for learning excellence

  1. Stephen Monk says:

    That’s a great read, brings back so many memories.


  2. Hello Stephen, nice to hear from you.
    Best wishes


  3. Joanne Hart says:

    Reading this brought back many happy memories of my first teaching post. I had a wonderful, and at times challenging, career at Alfred Barrow. It is testament to the school that so many of my former pupils have sought me out on Facebook and allowed me to see where their lives have taken them over the last 15ish years.
    You are so right that schools now are unable to have the nurturing approach we fostered at Alfs. My own 2 children, although they are fine, would have thrived in that environment and I feel sad that in ‘progression” we have lost so much.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s