We have a voice – please listen!

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A teacher comes into the classroom in the morning and sets the agenda of the lesson with the students. The students agree to begin with group work, but have the choice to later explore the topic through an interactive role play. After a few different lessons of the day, the students gather in the foyer for their school student council.

Decisions are taken on several topics, including new study area sofas and a community project involving both students and teachers. These decisions are taken into school staff meetings, which work towards putting them into practice, in close cooperation with the students who had the ideas. Later that month, some students will gather in one regional and one national meeting to discuss their opinions and experiences with education policy makers.

Does all this sound like a familiar situation to you? Nor to us!

School students, representing the biggest – yet least listened to – group in education systems, have demanded real participation in their education systems for decades. School student participation means being able to play an active role in our school community and society. An education system which does not encourage and support students to take active part in the everyday life of school, does not fully carry out its role. It may fill students’ minds with concepts but it will never teach them what being a citizen means and how to be one. We believe that education is crucial for acquiring a full understanding of active citizenship which is the basis of a living democracy. This can’t be taught but must be practised in schools every day!

Currently school student councils exist in many European countries, yet we are far from recognition and practice of real learner participation in most countries. Students are rarely taken seriously in decision-making around their curricula, teaching methods and other decisions, and even less so in higher-level policy-making decisions. Institutionalising processes of consultation with school students, for example by setting regular meetings, is key. Listening to learners only in set meetings is not enough, however, as their demands and needs must be taken seriously in all interactions with them. This means asking for feedback and input on all levels: teaching, school organisation and educational reforms.

We, as the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSUbring together 30 national school student unions in general secondary and vocational education and training from 24 European countries. Our fundamental belief is that as key stakeholders, school students have the objective to protect and promote school students’ common interests and to take an active part in the decision-making processes related to educational matters. In order to achieve these objectives and tackle issues present in school life, school students need to take part in organisations led by students whose function is to coordinate, support, represent and improve school students’ conditions. We support our national member organisations in building their capacity to represent all school students and undertake strong advocacy work towards decision-makers in education. It is crucial that teachers and school heads support these representative structures, such as school student councils and school student organisations, and take their demands seriously.

In an increasingly complex and diverse world, learning how to work with each other in a democratic manner must start in education. Schools where everyone – school students, teachers and other staff – of different backgrounds and political views participate in everyday activities and are given space to share their ideas and take decisions collectively, are even more important today.

When working towards establishing a more participatory culture at school, there is a number of good practices to be inspired by: from particular examples put forward by grassroots student activists within our Seeds for Integration Programme to holistic approaches in so called democratic schools. However, in the examples we can always see the great impact that meaningful students’ participation has on the school, the local community, and the students’ themselves.

Allowing students to voice their needs and acting upon them in schools and societies will not only increase the feeling of ownership and build stronger communities but also have long-lasting impacts such as preventing young people from dropping out of education and living on the margins of society. School student participation means practising democracy from a very young age, and it is hard to deny the need for more understanding, solidarity and inclusion.