One of my roles at my school is as co-ordinator of the Student Council. On the one hand this is an amazing opportunity to watch students develop a voice and find the courage to make changes across the school that they want to see. On the other hand, it can also be a depressing study in group politics, the non-wisdom of crowds, and the inefficiency of committees.
Sometimes students will vote in a Council Rep for all the wrong reasons. They will vote for them because they think it will be funny. They will vote for them because they are popular. They will vote for them because they’re the only person standing for the position. These supposed representatives will then fail to show up to meetings, or, if they do attend, contribute very little. They are the students who do not check their emails and miss important dates and deadlines. The students you cannot depend upon to get their class’ views on issues of ongoing concern, or show up for job to which they have been tasked.
But it’s a school Council. And kids will be kids. These people are part of the whole point of such a Council existing. To give students the opportunity to learn. Not only the budding young politicians who relish every opportunity and gain wisdom for their future careers in Whitehall, but the failed representatives too, who learn a bit about responsibility and the effort that is required to get things done as they let down and disappoint their peers. Even the student electorate who, having made a poor choice on who to send to the Council, learn for next time about what they don’t want in a representative. Facilitating such revelations are a Student Council’s raison d’être.
Within the Coucil too, we learn important lessons. That change comes slowly. That great ideas without great commitment become fossils trapped in the minutes, but never reach their full potential. We learn that “no” is just a first offer, and that campaigns are marathons not sprints. And we also learn about what we want from the people we put charge: are the Chair and Deputy Chair of our Council leading the Council effectively? Does the Secretary organise things well and produce a fair record of what took place at each meeting? Does the Treasurer actually know how to count? Can the Public Relations team successfully relate to the public?
We learn through hands-on trial and error, we develop, and we move on to the next year and start it all again.
It is a low stakes game, and some years are better than others. When we know the students have made a mistake and voted in someone terrible, we ride it out and give them their chance to prove us wrong, hoping it will be something someone can learn from. And yes, sometimes we see history repeat itself, but we recognise the importance of a brand new cohort learning the same mistakes for themselves. So we’ll install the coffee machine again, even though we know how badly it will end. We’ll raise the issue about a common room for the lower school each year even though there is no physical room where such a room could go…
We recently ran a fundraising day that made a lot of money for a really good charity. But it could have raised so much more had the students thought about things more practically in advance. For example, they ran a cake sale that raised hundreds of pounds but ran out of cakes to sell after fifteen minutes; and organised a competition which required a lot of logistical effort and took up an entire lunchtime, but, at 50p an entry, could only ever raise a maximum of £15 from its sole 30 competitors. These are important learning experiences – they will iron out the kinks for next time. And school is the place to make such errors. As the great Tony Benn once said: “making mistakes is how you learn”.
The thing is though, what I expect of my school’s Student Council, I don’t expect to see of my real politicians or citizens. The Brexit vote was the national equivalent of voting for something because you though it would be funny: a kneejerk protest vote that might have seemed daring and taboo at the time but, in the end, will leave us without that which we really needed. Donald Trump is the same thing across the ocean. But when we give our unqualified students a chance to play out the poor decision-making skills of their peers, the worst consequence is perhaps a year of inaction on the Council. When we did it with Trump there will be consequences that will last for years. Deregulation, climate denial, prejudiced immigration policies, war-mongering, nuclear irresponsibility, diplomatic disaster… And with Brexit we have consequences that will likely last a generation or more.
All I know is that when I see complete incompetence in my students, fumbling through, and stumbling, at organizing the proverbial piss up in a brewery, I smile and feel content with the knowledge that they will grow as a result of their errors.
When I see it in Downing Street, or at the White House, I merely feel chilled to my core.