Skip to content

Blog post

Student Councils: Partnerships and Arguments

Roger Holdsworth

I read somewhere (maybe in J G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, but I stand to be corrected) about events in some prisoner of war camps in Singapore, as the Japanese troops withdrew towards the end of World War 2. Unused to their freedom, the inmates elected their own guards to maintain their imprisonment.

I’ve wondered whether there’s an analogy there to the work of some Student/School Councils.

Are these student structures replicating school processes that maintain some young people’s marginalisation? Or are they (or can they be) transformative of those processes so that education is inclusive of all? Whose interests do these Councils serve?

dynamic and meaningful partnerships between students and adults

Student participatory work around the world is increasingly characterised by dynamic and meaningful partnerships between students and adults: within-classroom partnerships, as well as formal organisational partnerships within schools and systems. It is important to consider the intentions and values inherent in this work.

Michael Fielding asks and reminds us:

What is all this [student voice] activity for? Whose interests does it serve? Is student voice a neutral technology or an inevitable expression of a set of values and assumptions, not just about teaching and learning, but about the kind of society we wish to live in? 1

Recently I listened to students discussing their Student Councils’ concerns. Some raised issues about ‘disruptive students’ who prevented them from learning, and sought ways to improve that learning by excluding the disruptive students from classes. Another group discussed how to stop other students (and teachers) from smoking. In each case, the students discussing this were not the students with ‘the problem’. There was a sense of ‘good’ students wanting to ‘do things to’ the ‘other’, just as non-participatory approaches ‘do things to’ students rather than ‘with them’. These student groups were coming dangerously close to being a vehicle for the perpetuation of division – for the marginalisation and ‘imprisonment’ of the ‘other’. Other Student Councils at the same forums were much more diverse in their representation and inclusive in their intentions.

We need to ask whether these partnerships are intended to maintain the status quo, or to transform educational relationships, processes and outcomes.

David Labaree (1997) 2 analysed the struggles between the public and private good that play out within educational goals. He pointed out that we are in a time where the ‘private good’ of individual ‘social mobility’ dominates those goals. We can see the intentions of Student Councils reflected within these struggles: they can be about empowering individual leaders who will privately benefit from that experience, or they can be about enhancing the public good of all students through inclusive educational approaches.

these Councils are more likely to be agents to replicate than to transform

If the processes by which students are elected/appointed to Student/School Councils privilege only those students who are already confident, articulate and successful (and who conform with existing norms), then these Councils are more likely to be agents to replicate than to transform. It may be in the interests of these students to maintain processes that exclude other students. It is easy for these Councils to be the witting or unwitting vehicles for maintaining (and even extending) those divisions.

Unless we, as supporters of active student participation, challenge them!

We need to be doing three things:

  • surfacing and discussing these issues with students, challenging them to be aware of their actions (individually and organisationally) in replicating or transforming processes, and seeking opportunities to argue with all student (and other) voices … both the ‘convenient’ and the ‘inconvenient’ ones 3;
  • establishing serious research-based partnerships with students about these issues, to enable them to contribute to, interrogate and act on them;
  • developing other structures and means that hear, listen to, and include all voices.

How we hear, listen to, acknowledge and argue with student voices – with respect, logic and evidence – is vital. But argue we must; for me, that argument will be around values of equity and inclusion. Roger Holdsworth

Serious and meaningful partnerships between students and teachers can entrench privilege – or they can challenge it.

We don’t have to agree with what students are ‘saying’ just because they’re students’ voices. If bullying is seen as a form of ‘inconvenient’ student voice, I’m not going to agree with that voice; while acknowledging it as student voice, I’m going to argue with what it says. Similarly, by extension, I’m not going to necessarily agree with ‘convenient’ student voices, particularly those that want to conform to existing patterns of exclusion; I’m going to argue with them too.


1 Fielding, M. (2012). Student voice, patterns of partnership and the demands of deep democracy. Connect 197: 10-15 and Revista de Educación 359: 45-65

 2 Labaree, D. F. (1997). Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals. American Educational Research Journal 34 (1): 39-81

3 Fletcher, A. (2012) at