In 1979, Steve Walsh, then the president of the adolescent-led National Union of School Students [NUSS], wrote in a statement on the politics of the union:
School students think, like anyone else. They think about their lessons and their school life, since this is what life is about for them for at least eleven years of their youth. Eleven years is a long time to keep human beings in an institution without letting them tell you what they think about anything… It would seem obvious to let school students at least have a say in how schools are run.
Today, it may seem that NUSS’s ideals have been realised. Under New Labour, all four nations of the UK pushed forward with ‘pupil participation’ in state schools, following the Crick Report of 1998, which recommended compulsory citizenship education. In England and Wales, the 2002 Education Act and Ofsted’s new inspection regulations of 2005 built on this agenda, suggesting greater provision for ‘pupil voice’. The 2005 White Paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools for All, stated that the government would ‘[encourage] schools to involve school councils in decision-making’. School councils – where an elected group of students meet to discuss issues – have become the most common ‘pupil participation’ mechanism in schools, although other kinds of initiative exist.
Since the early 2000s, Wales has led the way in enshrining this agenda in law. In 2005, the School Council (Wales) Regulations made it compulsory for every primary, secondary and special school to have a school council. In contrast, the Standards in Scotland’s Schools Act (2000) stated that each school’s ‘development plan’ should include an account of ‘the extent to which the headteacher of the school will… consult the pupils in attendance at the school; and… seek to involve them, when decisions require to be made concerning the everyday running of the school’. But it did not actually enforce this kind of consultation. English and Northern Irish legislation has mostly steered clear of this issue altogether.
Even in UK nations where school councils are not compulsory, numbers have increased since the 1970s, although school councils existed during and before this decade. In 2002, the National Foundation for Educational Research [NFER] reported that in a 1992 survey of 480 UK schools, about a third had school councils. By 2007, it was estimated by the Institute for Education that this figure had risen to 90%. After 2011, the language of ‘British values’ tended to replace ‘education for citizenship’, but ‘democracy’ is still one of the five key values listed.
Despite these developments, UK schools have still not addressed the challenge posed by school student unions like NUSS from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. The history of student activism suggests that we should question whether school students really are getting ‘a say’ – and rethink why they ought to be heard.
What was the NUSS?
The NUSS was founded in 1971. School students had been able to join the National Union of Students [NUS] from 1968, but elected to set up a separate union three years later. The NUSS held its first national conference in 1972. Writing to the then Conservative education secretary Margaret Thatcher in the same year, Mary Attenborough outlined the union’s key aims. These were wide-ranging in scope and not confined to the ‘obvious’ concerns of school students: alongside commitments to abolish prefects, corporal punishment, school uniforms and compulsory PE, the NUSS wanted better pay, training and working conditions for teachers, co-educational comprehensive schools for all, more spending on education, and the introduction of universal free nursery care. Above all, though, they were committed to changing how schools were run. They wanted schools to ‘recognise that students have basic human rights’ by guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly, and allowing the school to be governed by a democratic school committee composed of staff, students and parents. Furthermore, there should be ‘no victimisation of students campaigning and working for change in their school’ and no suppression of clubs or magazines.
The NUSS claimed to have thousands of members, but only a small minority of school students were ever involved in the union. Nevertheless, their stated aims indicated that they had a good handle on what their fellow students wanted from their schools. When English and Welsh school students in the 1970s were asked about their views on education, they continuously returned to the theme of power and control. Students wanted to be treated more equally and fairly by their teachers, and not pigeonholed as unruly ‘children’. Black and ethnic minority adolescents were especially likely to feel that they had been treated unjustly by staff who held all the power. This was also reflected in early responses to the Scottish School Leavers’ Survey [SSLS], which from 1977 onwards, sent out a questionnaire to all school leavers. Typical examples were ‘Teachers could make it more usefull [sic] by treating us with more respect than just the common thicky’ or ‘there are teachers who tend to treat you like babies.’
The NUSS was not the first or the only school students’ union in the UK. The shorter-lived Schools Action Union (SAU) was active from 1968 to 1974 and had the reputation of being the more ‘radical’ of the two, although in practice the two unions shared many aims. Issue-led groups such as the anti-nuclear Schools Against the Bomb and School Kids Against the Nazis, who opposed the National Front, also raised similar concerns about power and control, making the point that their meetings and leaflets were often banned in schools because of the rule about ‘no politics’. This reflects current furores about ‘politics in schools’, after then Conservative education secretary Nadhim Zahawi outlined new guidance in February 2022 that would discourage teachers from discussing ‘partisan political groups’ like Black Lives Matter. Critics, then and now, have pointed out that the curriculum cannot be apolitical: making choices about what to teach is a political decision. Similarly, it is a political choice to tell young people that they cannot organise in support of particular causes.
These child- and adolescent-led groups formed in the context of the radical children’s rights movement of the 1960s. This was led by writers such as John Holt and Paul Goodman in the United States, and Jenny Diski in Britain. History Workshop, a British movement of historians and activists which advocated ‘history from below’, focused its sixth workshop, in 1972, on ‘Children’s Liberation’. Texts like the Danish Little Red Schoolbook (1969), translated into English by students and teachers at Holland Park comprehensive school in 1970-1, were distributed by the SAU. In the early 1970s, some politicians tried to frame school student unions as groups of naïve children controlled by far-left adult organisers. As historian Owen Emmerson argues, ‘Edward Heath’s government employed the security services to infiltrate, monitor, and to uncover adult supporters of the SAU’. However, they ultimately found that the SAU really was organised by students. Meanwhile, Thatcher was so concerned about the potential influence of the NUSS that, in 1972, she listened seriously to a tip-off from a fellow Conservative MP that NUSS membership was spreading in London because of the promise of ‘getting travel and museum entry concessions’.
Why did the SAU and NUSS disband?
Nowadays, there are no nationally-organised child-led school students’ unions in the UK. This is perhaps unsurprising given the challenges that organisations like NUSS and SAU faced. Because schools are not seen as school students’ workplaces, school students, unlike their teachers, have no right to organise. NUSS tried to combat this by achieving official recognition for their local branches, but this ultimately depended on having a sympathetic headteacher. The National Union of Teachers [NUT] refused to recognise the NUSS and often put obstacles in its way. When the Taylor Report of 1977 recommended student representation on boards of governors, for example, the NUT resisted and the idea was ultimately shelved. In the same year, the NUT also complained to the Department of Education and Science [DES] that NUSS was allowed to send representatives to the regional conferences held as part of the ‘Great Education Debate’, using their journal the Teacher to call on the DES to rescind the invitation.
Teachers, who already believed they were facing a crisis of authority among the general public, were ‘horrified’ by the prospect of school student governors and by the NUSS’s activity. Their concerns were echoed by other adult-led organisations, even those who might have been expected to be sympathetic to the cause. The Communist Party – one of the organisations the government had suspected of ‘infiltrating’ school student unions – was actually equivocal about students’ rights. In a 1972 statement on the NUSS, they claimed to welcome the formation of the union as it would develop responsible citizenship and democratic participation among young people, but refused to accept the union’s own rationale for its existence. ‘We reject the view that there exists any inherent conflict, open or disguised, between teachers and school students,’ the party stated. ‘Rather are they allies in a common cause.’
In fact, the NUSS and SAU were often openly supportive of teaching staff. In 1969, the SAU published an article called ‘Teachers: enemies or allies?’ in their journal Vanguard, which argued that teachers were not responsible for the educational system, which was maintained by the state. ‘Many of them are sickened by what they have to teach, and the methods they have to use…We must overcome the prejudices which separate progressive teachers and students’. Similarly, the NUSS wrote in their journal Blot in 1976 that ‘both pupils and teachers are pushed around, they have as many restrictions as we do – so everybody gets resentful, though it’s not the teachers, it’s the system’. These school student unions’ opposition to education cuts in the 1980s, and consistent support for better pay and conditions for teachers, demonstrated their willingness to be ‘allies’.
Alongside national resistance to school student unions, these organisations faced practical difficulties within schools. Most dramatically, individual schools could take punitive action against ‘disruptive’ student activists. The NUSS reported a complaint to the Inner London Education Authority [ILEA] in 1978 about a fourth-year student at Chilwell Comprehensive School. This student had been told by the school’s headteacher that he was not allowed to set up a branch at the school, and was indefinitely suspended for ‘distributing NUSS recruitment material’. In response to these sorts of cases, the NUSS composed a ‘Legal Document’ with the assistance of the National Council for Civil Liberties, which outlined students’ rights at school – but admitted that these were few because of the doctrine of ‘in loco parentis’, which allowed teachers to make any reasonable rules they liked. School student unions also faced the obvious challenge that the population of the school was constantly changing, and as it was usually the older students who took the lead in union organising, these leaders needed to be frequently replaced as they graduated.
From the 1980s onwards, parents rather than students, were increasingly treated as the key stakeholders in schools. These Thatcherite reforms were signalled during Thatcher’s tenure as education secretary, when she replied to NUSS’s letters by talking about the rights of parents rather than the rights of students. Responding to NUSS’s demand for universal co-educational comprehensives, she wrote ‘Many parents regard the direct grant schools as more suitable for the needs of their children than the schools which might otherwise be available’ and ‘parents should have some freedom of choice.’ The 1980 Education Act, historians Peter Mandler, Chris Jeppesen and Laura Carter argue, drew inspiration from the 1977 Taylor Report, but instead of student governors, it mandated the inclusion of parent-governors in British state schools. Although parent-governors had existed before 1980, this Act made it compulsory for the governing body to include at least two parent-governors, so their numbers expanded. Between 1986 and 1992, 75,000 parent-governors were elected across c.30,000 UK schools. The framing of parents as ‘consumers’ continues to be reflected in public discussion of the education system today; parents’ opinions about issues such as national school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic are often sought, rather than the opinions of students themselves.
Why are students still not being heard in schools?
School councils are not new. The SAU criticised them in Vanguard in 1969, writing that ‘The principle of schools [sic] councils is universally ignored and abused. In no school does the council have any power… councils often find themselves discussing the sanitary arrangements, or the Common Room.’ School councils, they continued, were controlled by school authorities and often met infrequently, further reducing their influence. The NUSS made similar criticisms throughout the 1970s, with Walsh writing in 1979, ‘Existing school councils are in the majority of cases undemocratic. They are not allowing school students to take any real decisions.’
Have things improved? The most recent report on pupil participation in the UK education system, titled ‘Amplify! How to maximise young people’s voices through your secondary school council’, was published by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in July 2021. This was based on research undertaken in Welsh secondary schools between 2018 and 2020, which found that, in 2018, only 42% of secondary school pupils felt they could take part in decisions in school, with only 33% feeling that school councils discussed issues that were important to them. The figures grew worse when students were asked about more specific issues: only 29% thought that they sometimes had choice about what they learnt, 23% that they had a say over school policies, and 17% that they had a say over how their schools spent money.
Students from marginalised groups, such as working-class students, students of colour, disabled students and LGBT+ students, were even less likely to feel included, alongside students who were bullied and unpopular. One student of colour said in one of the Amplify workshops that ‘The school council does not listen to dinner ticket boys’, while another student said they had no voice ‘because I’m awkward and no-one likes me’. The secondary school students also dismissed the results from a survey of primary school children, which showed that primary school students felt they had much more say in their education: ‘When they’re younger they don’t see the bigger problems’. As Wales has been at the forefront of the four UK nations in driving forward ‘pupil participation’, this situation is unlikely to be significantly better elsewhere in the UK.
This recent report is not an aberration but repeats research findings about school councils across the past fifty years – findings that the SAU and NUSS anticipated in the 1960s and 1970s. After the expansion of school councils at the turn of the millennium, much sociological and educational research across the UK examined whether they actually worked. In 2002, NFER found that only two-fifths of English children thought school councils were an effective way of listening to their ideas. At the time, this finding was ascribed to what was seen as the relative novelty of the ‘pupil participation’ agenda – but, as we have seen, this explanation is unlikely. In 2008, the Welsh inspection body, Estyn, stated that school councils had had ‘little impact’ on the running of Welsh schools.
In a research study run by the University of Edinburgh, ‘Having A Say at School’ (2010), it was found that while Scottish students who were actually members of school councils usually thought that councils gave pupils a say on how their schools were run, the functioning of the councils was impeded by a lack of budget, irregular and infrequent scheduling, and no direct connections between the school council and adult-led governing bodies. The views of students who were not members of school councils were ignored. In Northern Ireland, a 2015 report noted that while 57.7% of school students felt listened to, only 38% felt that their views were taken seriously. In a more recent survey of Scottish state schools, one student was quoted: ‘I’ve been in it [the school council] a few years. And whenever I’ve been in it they’ve changed almost nothing. They don’t really have any power at all.’
Despite the efforts of students, teachers, researchers and departments of education over the past fifty years, school councils do not seem to have made the majority of children feel that they are heard in schools. Indeed, in the last ten years, things may have gone in the opposite direction. Education reforms under the coalition government and successive Conservative governments have further emphasised top-down hierarchy in the English school system. The authors of the 2021 Welsh report felt that ‘the national focus on effective participation in schools seems to have lost momentum in recent years’, both in UK nations other than Wales and in some Welsh local authorities. Independent organisations such as Smart School Councils give the impression that schools are approaching pupil participation as a tick-box exercise by advertising tools ‘for time-poor teachers in busy schools’ that will produce ‘a pupil-led, inclusive and Ofsted-ready school council that’s easy to run’.
The remit of school councils is also a point of contention. Across a range of research surveys since 2000, it has been clear that school councils tend to cover the same kind of topics: recycling initatives, anti-bullying policies, the lunch menu, changing [but not abolishing] the school uniform, improving toilet facilities, making sure water fountains and benches were installed and discussing a greater range of extracurricular activities and social activities like proms. The facilities offered by schools have certainly been of concern to students past and present, with students complaining about school buildings, equipment and toilets since at least the 1950s.
However, it is clear that students are rarely allowed to have input into any decisions that would allow them real power; for example, they do not get to comment on how they are taught. (While individual schools have not controlled the curriculum since the reforms of the 1980s, teachers still have at least some say over what options they choose and how they teach, especially if they are part of the senior leadership team). In 2007-8, another survey of Scottish schools found that school staff predominantly associated ‘pupil participation’ with teacher-led consultation, writing that pupils were usually invited to take part in activities that did not affect their pedagogic experience in the classroom, such as ‘healthy schools’ or ‘eco-schools’ projects.
What would it take for students to be heard in schools?
Neither the NUSS nor the SAU thought that school councils were the answer to the problems they faced in the education system. They challenged the hierarchical organisation of schools more broadly. As the NUSS wrote in a statement in 1973/4, they were fighting for school students’ democratic rights, because:
The usual reply of the ‘authorities’ to this plea for an opportunity to practice democracy is that school students are not ‘responsible’ enough. Unfortunately, you can never learn how to be ‘responsible’ if you are never given responsibility… Mistakes may be made at first but experience will rapidly teach school students to use their new found responsibility wisely. We can no longer allow school students to be herded like sheep… School students must make their voices heard, they must be allowed to show that they can contribute valuably to our education system.
On the surface, this might seem to chime with modern rationales for school councils, which, as we have seen, were initially promoted by New Labour as part of ‘education for citizenship’. It is often stated by advocates of school councils that one benefit of establishing these bodies is that they teach children and young people about democracy. For example, the 2002 NFER report argued that one function of the school council is that it helps ‘children to understand democratic procedures… students need direct experience of democracy if they are to become fully participative citizens in society.’ In the later 2007 report, it was suggested that ‘pupil voice can contribute to preparation for citizenship by improving pupils’ knowledge and their “transferable” and “social” skills.’
The idea that we should ‘educate for citizenship’ is not new. It dates back at least to the Education Act of 1870, which followed the Second Reform Act of 1867, in advance of the establishment of mass democracy in Britain. However, this rhetoric treats young people as ‘citizens in waiting’; in other words, as non-citizens. It assumes that young people don’t possess the skills and qualities needed to exercise their democratic rights, and that these need to be taught. Other rationales for school councils further emphasise this ‘deficit model’ of childhood and adolescence, arguing that there are many things young people lack that school councils can provide. For example, it is suggested that school councils improve students’ behaviour and help children and adolescents learn to care for others.
In reality, the model of democracy employed in initatives like school councils is fundamentally flawed – which may explain why students so persistently feel that school councils do not speak for them. School councils do not allow students to hold real power in comparison to other stakeholders – teachers, parents, school governors, the local authority or academy trust. This suggests that they are not actually democratic. As political philosopher Ross Harrison argues in his survey text on democracy, most people feel that democracy is a good thing not just because it may lead to better outcomes for society, but because it makes the state accountable to its citizens:
… the route by which a decision is reached may in some circumstances be as important as the decision itself. It is not enough to get the right answer. It must also be got in the right way… permissible routes should respect the value of autonomy, the principle that people should have control of their own lives.
The curriculum, pastoral care and facilities provided by UK state schools may have become better or worse since the 1960s, but one thing seems to have remained constant: young people do not get any real say in how schools are run. When we consider how hierarchically schools have been organised, both historically and in the present day, it is not surprising that they do not respect the autonomy of school students. In the first issue of Blot, the NUSS directly criticised the idea that students should be ‘educated for citizenship’ rather than exercising their rights now: ‘Politics is about power and who has it and what they use it to do. So if we’re going to have politics in schools, we’ve got to have a share in the power too – being able to run the school together with our parents and teachers.’ They rejected inflammatory media language about ‘pupil power’, stating in a factsheet: ‘Advocating a say for school students isn’t “pupil power”: it’s pupil participation. We are meant to live in a democracy – why isn’t it practised in schools?’
Ultimately, the NUSS argued, parachuting a ‘democratic’ school council into an undemocratic institution was doomed from the start. It also ignored how school students actually experience school day to day. The 2007-8 Scottish survey pointed out that when students themselves think about participation, they think about the classroom and their experience in lessons, whereas teachers tend to think about extra-curricular initiatives. This also leads to greater resistance from teachers, who see participation as something they have to add to an already unsustainable workload rather than integrate into what they already do.
‘We have tried every formal mechanism under the sun and it delivers up to an extent but unless the actual underpinning ethos of the school is about freedom to raise issues, freedom to talk, freedom to challenge, freedom to be yourself, then it's not going to happen,’ a secondary headteacher from Scotland commented in the 2007-8 Scottish survey. This was a conclusion that both the SAU and NUSS, as well as many school students not directly involved in school student unions, foresaw as early as the 1960s. The lessons of their experience suggest one obvious way to move forward. We should not just give school students ‘a say’ in schools. We should ask them how they want to have a say, and what they want to talk about. Otherwise, ‘pupil participation’ will continue to fail.
[The cited material about NUSS, SAU and Schools Against the Bomb comes mainly from the following archives: the Modern Records Centre, Warwick University; the People’s History Museum archives, Manchester; the National Archives, London; and the Bishopsgate Institute, London.]
Burke, Catherine and Grosvenor, Ian. The School I’d Like: Revisited. Children’s and Young People’s Reflections on an Education for the Future (2nd ed). Oxon, 2015.
Crick, Bernard. Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools. Final Report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship (London, 1999)
Emmerson, Owen. ‘No to the cane’, Jacobin, 22 October 2017, https://jacobin.com/2017/10/scotland-corporal-punishment-britain-schools-action-union
Gow, Lesley and McPherson, Andrew eds., Tell Them From Me: Scottish School Leavers Write About School and Life Afterwards (Aberdeen, 1980)
Harrison, Ross. Democracy. (London, 1993)
Heywood, Sophie, and Strandgaard Jensen, Helle, ‘Exporting the Nordic children’s ’68: the global publishing scandal of The Little Red Schoolbook’, Barnboken Journal of Children's Literature Research, 41 (2018)
Hoyles, Martin ed., Changing Childhood (London, 1979)
Thomson, Matthew. Lost Freedom: The Landscape of the Child and the British Post-War Settlement (Oxford, 2013)
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