In 2016, the Victorian Student Representative Council (VicSRC) commissioned Deakin University to research student representation in Victorian government secondary schools. This came after the Victorian Government reviewed the purposes, functions and membership categories of school councils, and recommended that schools learn more about ways that students can be involved in school council processes.
Now, after years of successful campaigning by the VicSRC, legislation has been passed requiring School Councils in Victorian secondary schools to include two full student members. The following recommendations are drawn from the Eve Mayes’ Deakin University report “Student Representation on School Governance Councils” and the VicSRC is proud to support all school councils in creating a safe and respectful environment to welcome students on board.
Students and adults should both undertake training and receive support in school council work.
Student members should receive the same training as other school council members in their roles, rights and responsibilities. As a number of principals said, if training is not provided for students to “be able to do their roles properly”, meaningful participation will become “really hard for them” (Mayes, 2016. p. 51).
Implementation ideas: Training and support for adults
- Training targeted to support adults may include the exploration of assumptions about young people and discussion of ways to work with young people for the benefit of the whole school.
- Training targeted to support adults may also explore a range of ways to approach the issue of confidentiality, and strategies to support all council members (including students) to maintain confidentiality.
Implementation ideas: Training and support for students
Training targeted towards students will support them to fulfil their role as school council members, by understanding key structures, language and processes, and understanding the central importance of confidentiality. Specific training/induction sessions could involve, for example:
- The general structure of school council meetings and meeting procedures.
- Key subjects discussed at school council – for example, strategic planning and finance.
- Introduction to particular language, abbreviations and acronyms frequently used at meetings (cf. Kyte, 1985 as cited in Mayes, 2016. p.52).
- Tailored discussion around the code of conduct for school council members, with a focus on maintaining confidentiality.
- How to design and conduct consultative research.
In addition to training, having a support person or mentor for student members is considered to be important for students.
This support person might be:
- A former student on school council,
- A Student Voice Coordinator,
- A teacher selected by the student representative,
- A parent,
- The principal, or
- The school council president.
The role of this support person/mentor could be flexible, according to the student members’ needs and concerns. Some student members may choose to meet with this support person before their first meeting only, or maintain an ongoing relationship with this person. The role of this support person/mentor could include:
- To review agenda and meeting papers with student members prior to the meeting,
- To explain language/terminology,
- To look out for the student members at the meeting and ensure that they are comfortable and included in discussions,
- To assist students, where appropriate, to express their ideas or concerns (if, for example, student members do not wish to raise a concern by themselves),
- To encourage the student members to contribute in their role on school council.
The structure of school council meetings should support student members’ meaningful contribution, for example, through the early distribution of meeting agendas, invitations to offer their feedback on other reports, and student involvement in sub-committees.
Careful deliberation on school council structures can help to challenge some of the barriers of uncertainty and fear that hinder some students from feeling that they can make meaningful contributions to these meetings. Specific ideas for school council structures are suggested below.
- The early distribution of meeting agendas – The careful preparation and distribution of meeting agendas “at least five working days before the meeting” is already recommended in the Improving School Governance manual (Victoria State Government, 2015b, p. 20). However, anecdotal evidence from the study suggests that, in practice, this does not always occur. Distributing agendas early will enable student members “to reflect on the issues, to gather more information if necessary and to canvass the opinions of school community members” (Victoria State Government, 2015b, p. 20), including other students.
- Explicit invitations for student members to contribute during school council meetings – The structure of school council meetings should not only include time allocated for a student report but also deliberate opportunities for students to give feedback on other reports. Adult school council members might consider what kinds of “explicit gestures” could be made to signal that adults are “stepping back in order to create a space” for students’ contributions (Mitra, 2009, p. 426 as cited in Mayes, 2016.p. 53). Explicitly signalling and inviting students to contribute will strengthen a sense that students are equally valued on the council.
- Student involvement in sub-committees – To involve students only in school council meetings, and not in other sub-committees where “a significant amount of work may be undertaken” (Victoria State Government, 2015b, p. 20), risks tokenism. Involvement in sub-committees may enable students to “do lots of different things [that are] not bound by the tightness of a school council meeting” (Mayes, 2016.p. 54).
Student members should be “equally seated” with other members of the school council.
Attention to the seating arrangements in school council meetings and the power relations that they symbolise and materialise is needed. What students described as “safe seating arrangements” can “put students in the best position to act as possible”. Being “equally seated” has the potential to support student members to feel “comfortable”, counteracting potential feelings of intimidation, therefore strengthening students’ capacity to meaningfully participate in school council meetings (Mayes, 2016.p. 55).
Ideas for such safe seating arrangements could include:
- Students sitting between adults
- Students sitting “near the ‘power players’”, in a “power triangle”, with the “strong aura” of power “radiating to the students” (Mayes, 2016.p. 55)
- A seating plan
- At times, student members choosing to sit with other student members, and at other times, strategically working with other members
Student Members on school council should be one aspect of a whole school vision that meaningfully involves students in all aspects of their education.
Having a category of Student Member on school councils alone does not constitute meaningful student representation. It is important for schools to encourage, support and enable effective student governance practices at all levels so that the student membership and representation is meaningful and sustainable.
Separate from having mandatory Student Members, school council meetings are a perfect opportunity for other students, such as an SRC President, to attend as a Community Member or guest, as many schools currently have. This additional student/s could give a student or SRC report that represents students’ concerns, and can report back to the SRC or other student body about other school council discussions and decisions.
Such a report would strengthen the feedback loop between the SRC or other student body and the school council. Likewise, at SRC (or equivalent) meetings with students, time should be allocated and structured for SRC representatives to report on (non-confidential) matters discussed at school council meetings, for discussion.
Beyond school councils, the VicSRC encourages schools to invite and support students to be a part of a range of staff committees and working groups, such as faculty meetings, Respectful Relationships implementation working groups, curriculum committees and so much more!