‘My name’s Joel and I’m the Prime Minister’

This is how I was greeted by 11 year old Joel when I arrived at St Joseph’s RC primary school in Penarth recently.

Wales has promoted democracy in schools for many years – making school councils compulsory in every state school from December 2005.

School councils give life to Article 12 of the UNCRC – the right for children to have their voice heard and to play a part in decisions that affect them.

The quality of these school councils vary however. I have met children who can list major changes made to how their school operates through their school council, and others who see it as pretty irrelevant.

St Joseph’s RC Primary School in Penarth has adopted a model that gives all pupils a stake in running the school and real experience of creating change.

There is a cabinet elected by the school parliament which has membership from the entire school community.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are also my Super Ambassadors within the school, meaning that they have the job of telling everyone in the school about children’s rights and letting me know about the views and experiences of their fellow pupils.

The cabinet lead a series of ten working groups covering everything from curriculum to health to fair trade. The groups meet every week to make plans and carry out activities which are then reported back to the cabinet and subjected to detailed questioning by the group.

I was handed a copy of the plans last November and whilst being impressed by the detailed level of planning (listing aims, actions, who’s responsible and timescale) I have to admit to some scepticism as to whether they would be able to achieve all of their ambitious plans.

Yet, when I visited the cabinet in early May I found that nearly all of the plans were on track, some had been achieved early and further plans had been made. Examples of plans made and carried out by children include bidding for a grant to redecorate their hall, designing and building an outdoor prayer/quiet area and designing and delivering an incentive scheme for the use of the Welsh language in everyday school life.

These are some of the impressive aspects of this model:

  • The working groups meet in school curriculum time, demonstrating that student voice is central to the school and children don’t miss out on outdoor play time
  • All staff support the aims of the cabinet and working groups, meaning that the whole school is behind it. Parents, grandparents and elected members of the council were invited to a Parliament day to gain their support and understanding too
  • All activities are linked to different parts of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, giving a coherent framework to the wide range of activities
  • Children of all ages are enabled to take leadership roles – the digital group has a secretary from year two and the mission group is led by a year 3 pupil. This will build in sustainability and continuity of the work.
  • The regular cabinet meetings give a central focus, keeping up the momentum of the work. The Head teacher’s membership of this gives it prestige (but in my observation the cabinet meeting was led by the pupils not by the Head).

The good news is that the school have recently made a film about their work which will be available on our website as well as the school’s own, so other schools will be able to learn about the model. It is also good to know that eight other schools in the region are adopting the model too.