One of the problems of school councils is that they’re exclusive, they inherently narrow down the number of people who can get involved. For a structure that’s there to give everyone a voice, that seems like the wrong way to go. On the other hand, having 100 people in a room, let alone 1,000, can make it pretty difficult to get anything done.
So when we were asked to work with Northampton Academy who have over 70 students on their school council we were eager to see how we could make it work. After a bit of head scratching as to how we would approach it I remembered a method for collective action that I’d read about: Open Space.
Open Space reflected a lot of what we already suggest to school councils:
- Break down into small groups.
- Work on projects you care about.
- If no one cares enough to work on it, it’s probably not really important, move on to something else.
We discussed this with the senior team at Northampton Academy and we agreed to give it a go. We were all excited but equally nervous about how it would work out; it being such a departure from our normal structured training sessions, and the even more structured school days that students are used to.
After a couple of short icebreakers everyone took their seats in the large circle and we explained how the day would work:
- We know they are all here because they want to help make the Academy outstanding.
- It’s up to them to decide what they want to do to work towards that goal.
- Anyone who wants to can suggest an idea, if they are willing to help run a group to make it happen.
- Anyone can join or leave any group at any time during the day.
- In fact, the one rule is: Wherever you are neither contributing or learning, move to somewhere where you are.
I lay the ideas sheets and some pens in the middle of the circle and waited, half expecting no one to come forward. Immediately twenty students ran to the middle and started scribbling down their ideas. Each of them confirmed that they wanted to put in some work to make their ideas happen. Our fears had been completely unwarranted.
There were so many ideas, each with an eager proponent that we quickly had to move into the next phase of asking them to find other people to work with them on their idea. At this stage we only let ideas with at least 3 supporters get going. The first 10 groups were each given a space to work, some resources and the support of a Y12 or Y13 student leader that we had trained the day before.
All of the groups worked with fantastic enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and purpose, so by the end of the day we had presentations from 15 different projects. Every member of the 70+ strong school council had a task she or he was going to complete, each of which was part of a larger project plan.
This was achieved by us just throwing the school open to the students and trusting them to improve it in ways that meant something to them. Through the Y12 and Y13 school council we provided them with peer mentoring. This helped them to think through the details of their projects, without adult interference.
Of course the final effectiveness of this will be judged over the coming weeks – do the students stick to their plans – but we were amazed by what they achieved in the day. We are eager to see how we can use this model with other schools to engage a much larger group of students than are normally active in a school council.