How my students became leaders

Feb. 13, 2017
Jamie Robinson

Jamie Robinson

Vice Principal, Ashington High School

As a leader, you look to develop your staff. I have witnessed adults making dramatic positive changes in their lives because of quality leadership training. But wouldn't it be better if people developed these abilities when they were younger?

This thought led me to look at student leadership at my school. Leadership development can teach others to teach themselves, to learn how to learn, and to evolve from dependence to independence. These skills, along with leadership, would provide our students with lifelong benefits.

To get started I used the following three strategies – and after that encouraged the students to take over!

  1. Finding a burning platform: develop student power and intrinsic motivation
  2. Exploring our political leaders and systems: teaching our students to be leaders
  3. Organising our leaders: helping them to find a purpose and take action

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Finding a burning platform

First, I looked at what student leadership was already embedded in the school. The sixth form had a student executive which met half-termly with the school’s senior leadership team. I utilised this established group by tagging one member of the sixth form executive to each year group and giving them the power to select how we would identify our school council members. Together we researched a way to identify leaders and decided on a badge, meeting location and agenda items to discuss throughout the year, with the students deciding every step of the process.

For our students to really develop their leadership they needed a sense of self-efficacy – the belief that they could accomplish their goals. I searched for a burning platform, something that an elected student council could focus on as a project.

Our school had long taken part in the ‘Make Your Mark’ campaign – the UK’s largest youth consultation, through which young people around the country decide on the issues that the Youth Parliament will debate. This year, I decided that our students would lead the campaign in school, encouraging them to take an active role in democracy. We also had a bigger goal: to get one of our students elected as a member of Northumberland’s Youth Cabinet for the first time.

"I searched for a burning platform, something that an elected student council could focus on as a project."

Exploring our political leaders

First, we needed to elect our student council. With the sixth form executive we created a launch assembly, tutor time lesson plans and voting slips. We also deliv­­­ered a staff briefing, which created a real buzz in the staffroom.

Over the course of a week every year group in the school had a dedicated student council assembly and tutor time was given over to leadership activities, for example learning about the UK Parliament and electoral system, and practicing writing speeches using famous political speeches as examples.

At the end of the week students put themselves forward as candidates for student council, gaining reward points for doing so. We held an anonymous democratic vote – and at the end of all this we had a representative in each tutor group, across all year groups who together made up the school’s student council. Each year group’s council had a sixth form leader to guide them and who would report back to myself and their year manager. More than that, every student in the school could now talk with confidence about democracy, what it means and its history in the UK.

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Organising our leaders

Now we had our student council, we began the Make Your Mark campaign in earnest. The sixth form executive introduced the campaign to the new student council, who then planned and led a whole-school assembly encouraging candidates for Youth Parliament to come forward. The council then helped candidates to plan and promote their campaigns.

Throughout the candidates’ campaigns, the student council used tutor time to discuss issues that mattered to them with their peers, including the environment, the NHS and education reform. This would help to inform what any successful candidate would bring with them to the Youth Parliament.

Across Northumberland 6,000 students voted, the highest turnout ever recorded. I had hoped that we would have one student elected to the county’s Youth Cabinet – but I hadn’t dared to dream that two would be elected. One student was even elected to the National Youth Parliament.

"I had hoped that we would have one student elected to the county’s Youth Cabinet – but I hadn’t dared to dream that two would be elected. One student was even elected to the National Youth Parliament."

Challenges faced

Problems in education come in all shapes and sizes. A key challenge for creating and embedding the student council at Ashington High School was finding the time and resources needed to get started. Being able to use a week of assembly time was certainly beneficial, as were the great resources provided by Make Your Mark.

Ensuring staff support can also be a big challenge in school. I made sure that the plan had been shared and presented to the senior leadership team and principal before getting started, and the student council and I worked hard to keep staff involved and enthusiastic at every stage. The head of sixth form supported me greatly in utilising the established student leadership structure, and the pastoral year managers helped me by tracking and supporting their year group councils.

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Impact

Impact in this area can be hard to measure, but there were some clear indicators that I could use to show impact from this work.

It was easy to see, whether through observing a debate in tutor time or just through talking to them, that students had an increased knowledge and understanding of British Values, especially with regards to democracy and understanding the UK parliamentary system. It was also great to watch students actively taking part in the EU referendum.

Our students’ elections to the Northumberland Youth Cabinet and National Youth Parliament were testament to the effort and dedication the student council members put in. After all, we had taken part since this initiative had been created without ever having one of our students elected.

Importantly, we received SchoolComms texts with very positive comments from parents and carers. But the clearest indicator of impact was shown in feedback from the school's student voice questionnaire, which showed an 80 percentage point improvement from the previous year in the number of students saying that they had a voice in the school.

The greatest achievement of all was to see our students developing their leadership, confidence and presentation skills. Here are some of our students’ reflections:

Year 7 student council representative:

“When I saw so many teachers, my sixth form chairman and friends get together for the meeting, we all felt that we had more power.”

Year 8 student council representative:

“I felt really important and useful for speaking in front of people.”

Year 9 student council representative:

“I felt pride in myself because it is not that easy to talk in front of so many people.”

Year 10 student council representative:

“It was great knowing that our success was because of our hard work.”

I know there is still more to do regarding student leadership at Ashington High School, more leadership roles to be developed and used to promote these valuable life-long skills across all year groups. But this is our beginning.

Find out how we develop great leaders: applications for our Teaching Leaders programme are now open, click here.

Read more about Ashington High School's student leadership:


This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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