‘Doing’ Student Leadership as a Member of SLT

Posted on March 18, 2013


I have a confession to make about this latest chapter in the intermittent ‘doing’ series of posts: I have not led on student leadership in over five years. Because of this one of the first things I am going to do is acknowledge the fact that things have moved well beyond the things I am describing here. Indeed, my thinking about the way student leadership itself should function has changed massively in just the last few months.

I guess my starting point for how I now think that we should approach student leadership is contained within the Trojan Mouse blogpost I wrote to accompany my keynote presentation for #PedagooLondon (read and/or listen to it here).

In short, the main thrust of that presentation was that we have for too long now in education given too much faith in Trojan Horse initiatives brought in by great educational thinkers and governments as the seeming magic bullet to cure all of the educations system’s woes. In doing so we have fallen into the misguided belief that the laws of cause and effect apply to educational leadership when, in fact, we are working within a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) that has too many individual agents to neatly allow a single policy or practice cause to generate institutional or systemic improvements.

The nature of this complex adaptive system (interconnected, full of variety, responding to simple rules, self-organising and leading to emergent rather than planned outcomes) means that school leaders need to allow teachers to flap their wings (the butterfly effect), cause disequilibrium, embrace the unexpected and be messy in their practices if they are to be genuinely innovative. In doing so they will be unleashing Trojan Mice rather than Trojan Horses and they will be relying on small fires of interest to kindle others and catch hold. Or alternatively they will be avoiding the expectations that small fires need to be anything other than small fires; that they do not need to catch hold and can exist in a single classroom if that is appropriate.

This post is going to start with some pointers about setting up a whole-school approach to ‘Student Leadership’ but most importantly it will conclude that a whole-school approach of the kind outlined is not enough and that the school leaders with responsibility for ‘doing’ student leadership needs, in a complex adaptive system, to ensure that every classroom teacher understands why and how they can unleash the Student Trojan Mice in their own classrooms and has the confidence of trust from their SLT to be able to take the calculated risks in their teaching that will in turn allow their students to take the calculated risks in their learning.

Read ‘Learner Voice’ by Futurelab, or find your own source of inspiration

‘Learner Voice’ remains one of the most influential reports that I have ever read as a member of SLT.  Written in 2006 by Futurelab and ESSA (the English Secondary Students Association, a union for schoolchildren whose website is here) it captured the zeitgeist (Trojan Horse) of the times – Student Voice – but went far beyond it in many ways.  For me it built upon the reading I had done about distributive leadership and drilled it down beyond middle leaders and teachers to students.  It is a document way more impressive than anything published as part of the National Strategies on student voice at the time.

Move beyond student noise and student voice to student leadership

The one thing that Futurelab got very wrong in the publication ‘Learner Voice’ was the word ‘voice’.  At the centre of the document is a wonderful graphic based on Arnstein’s Ladder of participation, shown below.

Arnstein's Ladder

This is a brilliant way of reviewing your current practice in terms of student leadership, but what is really notable is that the word ‘listened’ (or any other reference to learner voice) is last used at the ‘placation’ level which falls under the broader category of ‘tokenism’.  As a result of this I developed, from the Arnstein and Futurelab models, a different way of thinking about the taxonomy of student participation that is shown below.

Arnstein 2

For me the concept of ‘student voice’ is a halfway house en route to ‘student leadership’:  without it a school will have to contend with ‘student noise’ in all its forms (withdrawal, protest, underachievement, passive acquiescence).  But with nothing beyond ‘student voice’ schools will not be able to harness the energy that students can bring to school improvement at all levels.  In short, a school leader with responsibility for ‘doing’ student leadership is very different to a school leader with responsibility for ‘doing’ student voice. The former seeks to empower and the remainder of this post is my advice the these leaders.

Be ambitious in your plans for student leadership at a whole school level

Too often student leadership is squirreled in small, almost hidden places within schools.  Typically there is a School Council or a Year Council with one or two members of each form for who election is a popularity contest.  They meet perhaps once a month with an eager middle leader or put-upon senior leader and knock out some plans for charity days (usually involving non-uniform) and some complaints about the state of the toilets.  Occasionally the teacher with responsibility will find an external event, some regional event for school councils, and they will happily engage with this.  Nothing wrong with this but oh so limited in scale and imagination.  Instead the senior leader with responsibility for student leadership should be creating something with a touch of awe and wonder about it.  It my previous school this was the over-arching Student Parliament which was comprised of a number of constituent bodies that informed all aspects of school life.  The title ‘Parliament’ was deliberate, an attempt to link into the national political scene (because let’s face it who gets excited at the thought of councils?) and thereby teach citizenship in its fullest sense.  If school leaders scale back ambition how can we possibly blame students if they do the same, and an unambitious approach to student leadership is no approach at all.  It is doomed to the failure of monotony.

Make elections an event and don’t be scared of nominations

The Student Parliament at my former school needed three students from each form group to attend each of its component bodies (see later).  Of these two – one male and female – were elected by open ballot after a hustings in an election week that included assemblies on the importance of standing for election and voting for those who put themselves forward, even if that vote was cast on the basis of popularity.  Posters adorned the school and students were recognised positively for putting themselves forward.  It was an annual event and the importance of it was added to by the creation of polling booths, ballot papers and a formal count that was carried out at a common time for all form groups.  We also decided to include one nominated representative per form.  Initially that was done to help us get the constitution up and running, but the Student Leaders were keen to keep the nominees as an integral part of the process in future years because they felt that it gave students who narrowly missed out and students less popular among their peers a chance to participate.  I weighed this one heavily because of its antidemocratic nature, but I hadn’t reckoned on the democratising nature of how teachers chose their nominees.  In the end I was glad that they retained the nomination process once they had the chance to discard it.

Develop a constitution and let students write it

The very first role for the first cohort of Student Leaders at that school was to write the constitution for the whole Student Parliament.  I took them to a quiet part of the school for a day, asked them to consider what they wanted from student leadership and shared with them some early thoughts of mine about how it might look.  They then identified what aspects of organisation needed to be put in place and wrote an eleven-part constitution that covered everything from election processes to expected standards, and from the format of meetings to the rules for making future amendments to the constitution.  I still remember the day fondly as the best example I have ever seen of focused and lively debate between peers.  The thorny issue of whether or not students with poor behaviour records would be allowed to stand (or remain) as Student Leaders took an hour to resolve and they chose very well, having been swayed by a boy who pointed out that he wouldn’t have been in the room had the rules being proposed been in place.  Allowing students full control over their leadership structures is an absolute ‘red line’ for me and I heartily recommend it to any senior leader with responsibility for student leadership.  Otherwise the whole concept is built on a contradictory premise and the whole structure will resonate with hypocrisy.

Create a student leadership structure that shadows or mimics school structures

Under the umbrella of a Student Parliament there were four student leadership bodies in the structure I implemented at my previous school.  Each of these were designed to feed into the adult leadership structures within the school.  These student leadership groups were:

Student Parliament

All three Student Leaders were members of a Year Network (networks were a big part of the TLR restructuring the year before), but then each one had to select a specific whole school group of which to be a part.  The Learning Forum was very much aligned to the whole school focus on pedagogy (a common theme in the schools I have worked at on SLT) and fed into the work of an Assistant and Deputy Headteacher.  The School Council, the only previous form of student voice with a focus on day-to-day matters, was merged into the new structure but reported instead to a Deputy Headteacher and the School Business Manager.  It also had a significant budget of its own to manage.  Finally, the School Improvement Group linked to the work of the Headteacher and the Governing Body in bringing new ideas to the school from best practice elsewhere.  The overarching Student Parliament, to which all Student Leaders were affiliated, was an annual opportunity for each of the groups to report back to each other, identify priorities for the coming year and agree proposed changes to the constitution.  It reported to no-one and was the most experimental aspect of the whole structure.

As a small addendum to this section I need to stress the need for specific, dedicated and student-friendly administrative support for student leadership at this level of ambitiousness.  Senior leaders allowed one administrator (who also took on the role of heading up the newly created student reception area) to have this almost entirely as their job description.  This was vital for the success of the project, and mean that there was an advocate for Student Leaders amongst the support staff which helped the school in a great number of ways.

Give your student leaders leadership training

This is vital.  Having given students the systems, structures and platform to become leaders we felt it was vital that they also be given the training on order to be able to do so effectively.  Each year, a few weeks after the election week, we held a training day for all Student Leaders at the local authority teacher training centre on the basis that if this was where we sent our staff for training, why not send our students too.  It served a twin purpose in making our work highly visible to the local authority which generated other opportunities.  At the Student Leadership training days we ran whole group presentations and small group seminars based on which Student Parliament body they belonged to.  We taught them about organisational structures and processes, but also how to garner opinion from their peers, how to make their points in meetings effectively and how to manage change as a leader.  These were wonderful days made all the happier by seeing how all the local authority consultants coped (not very well) with having children to deal with for the first time in fifteen or more years.

Engage external agencies at local, national and international levels

Having established the Student Parliament, it was important not to simply to look inwards to what we wanted to change that was already in place, but to also look outwardly to new opportunities for both the school and the Student Leaders themselves.  The School Improvement Group in particular was charged with ensuring that we ‘borrowed’ successful ideas from other schools and we used the SSAT Leading Edge school network and the local authority connections.  But we also found opportunities in abundance for our students to get involved with a number organisations, including a regional student parliament and national charities amongst others.  These opportunities, still present if you look closely enough, can take students to the Houses of Parliament, the European Union and who knows where else.  In the era of Skype it can bring the great and the good (or not so great and not so good, but still interesting) into your school.  For the senior leader in charge of student leadership these opportunities make these connections are of crucial importance in making the students better leaders because they develop both the knowledge of wider political leadership, and the skills needed to wield that knowledge effectively.  The bonus is that one opportunity frequently leads into another, snowballing as they go along to help widening of participation, which has got to be at the heart of any student leadership work.

Underpin everything with rewards, perks, expectations and responsibilities

This should really go without saying, but it’s vital to the ongoing success of a student leadership project.  A wily member of SLT with responsibility will outsource the whole lot so that they are sytematic.  The students who wrote the constitution made all the decisions about these areas.  The administrator for Student Leaders kept all the records of participation and turned these into rewards and records of achievement.  We even began using SIMs to automatically reward for attendance at meetings.  But the one area where my energies were directed as member of SLT with responsibility was in the highly public recognition and rewarding of students in assemblies, with my leadership team colleagues, in staff meetings, through parents’ evenings and in the school and local press.  If I were doing this now I’d have a Student Leadership blogsite set up and a twitter account up and running to help spread that praise, and build the networks, further and wider.

Distribute autonomy and accountability, not just tasks

The final element of my former work with student leadership that I wish to address here is the importance of ensuring that Student Leaders have full (or almost full where it is not possible for safeguarding reasons) autonomy for their work.  Hopefully this has been prevalent through the reading of this blogpost.  Autonomy is a prerequisite for leadership; without it we aren’t going any further than ‘student voice’ and the tokenism areas of Arnstein’s ladder shown earlier.  Being humans this will mean some failures happen, as often through overambition rather than underambition.  In these situations the senior leader with responsibility for student leadership needs to gird their loins, fight the good fight in private on behalf of the Student Leaders, and give them yet more trust and yet more autonomy.  The reason why this needs to happen is because as well as autonomy, Student Leaders have to be recipients of distributed accountability.  Their failures are their failures, and they have to face their peers with that awareness at the forefront of their minds (that was a key part of their training).  Nobody likes to fail and when it happens increasing autonomy to sharpen the sense of future accountability is the right response.  In reality, however, there were no spectacular failures hence the more philosophical nature of this section.  They got it right far more often than they got it wrong.  Some did lose their Student Leader status through failure to participate, but these students had to face the accountability of voting in bye-elections for their successor which proved to be quite sobering for them by all accounts.

Most of all, remember that true student leadership starts and ends in classrooms

As I discussed at the very start of this post, my thinking on student leadership has changed greatly in recent months.  Whilst I believe that there is a massively important place for the large-scale, whole-school structures for student leadership outlined in this post, structures that need to be overseen by a member of the leadership team for many reasons, they are all for naught if there is not a commitment to student leadership within the classroom.  The strategy described is very Trojan Horse in scale and in its intended effect, but schools are complex adaptive systems and so we need student leadership to be a Trojan Mouse strategy, where all students are given agency, not just those elected or nominated to leadership positions.  We need these Student Trojan Mice to be allowed to start their non-literal small fires within the classroom, bringing their areas of interest or expertise into their daily work just as much as we need to do the same with our Trojan Mouse staff.

If I were the member of SLT with responsibility for student leadership today I would be looking very closely at the intriguing range opportunities that are out there to help our teachers create Trojan Mouse-friendly classrooms.  The Digital Leaders Network is a perfect example of how students can be given proper leadership opportunities based upon their existing areas of expertise in ways that can enhance the classroom experience of all, not least of all teachers.  Tait Coles’ work on Punk Learning shows us the power of con-constructed (or actually, student-constructed) learning that is challenging and authentic in equal measure.  In a similar vein the work of many practitioners engaging in Project-Based Learning rigorously underpinned by the theoretical challenge laid down by Ron Berger’s “An Ethic of Excellence”, offers an amazing opportunity for a senior leader with responsibility for student leadership to focus their energies.

If senior leaders cultivate the conditions amongst all teachers that enable them to build a classroom-focused, Trojan Mouse approach to student leadership, then whole-school mechanisms for student leadership will be massively enhanced.

If, however, senior leaders do not cultivate these conditions then a purely whole-school, Trojan Horse approach to student leadership will have the potential of becoming little more than a beautifully window-dressed display for the outside world masking a post-January sales wasteland of practice within the classroom.  I know which approach I would prefer.

Posted in: Education, Leadership