According to a recent article in The Age, from 2018 Victorian government school students will have a say in hiring principals and approving school budgets as part of a shake-up that will see them appointed to government high school councils with full voting rights. The Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino said "Young people should have a say in the future direction of their school. We want our kids to be future leaders in our communities and developing these skills is a crucial step in making that happen. These student members will have full voting rights on the council and it is our expectation will play a key role in deciding the future direction of the school." The Victorian Government has also announced that training will be rolled out to prepare students for the new role and consultation is underway with students, parents and teachers.
Although this may sound somewhat out of the ordinary, Victoria is not the first state or territory to attempt inclusive decision-making processes such as this. In the ACT, there are 29 government schools under the Education Regulations 2005 (ACT) which are required to have two student members on the school board. According to the Education Act 2004 (ACT) section 41(2)(f), the school boards of these schools must include two members elected by the students at the school and appointed by the director-general. This is also not an Australian phenomenon. Several states of the United States have laws that require schools to have student representation on school boards. The Irish Times, in late 2016, also wrote about a Bill that included school students on schools boards of management.
On the other side of the coin and back in the USA, an article in The Atlantic asked the question: 'Should Students Sit on School Boards? Advocates say teenagers deserve a say in policies that affect them. But do students have the maturity and experience to make responsible decisions?'
The Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan supported this initiative earlier this year and said young people had a right to take part in decisions that affected them: "I think we need to get much better at recognising that children and young people have expertise and can make a contribution, rather than assuming that adults know best." However, this does not necessarily mean that this type of initiative could or should extend to non-government school boards or councils.
School boards or councils of non-government schools usually consist of a chair, a deputy chair, a secretary, a treasurer, usually a representative of the parents, the president of the Parents & Friends Association, alumni members and other members co-opted to enable a balance of skills, gender and so forth. In an earlier School Governance article we remarked that school boards have often been referred to as conservative school boards. This is not a new description and, interestingly, it is also one shared by boards in corporate Australia. However, it is growing more apparent that school boards are increasingly looking to balance not only their overall skills base, but also their age and gender diversity.
School boards are ordinarily constructed on the basis of the school constitution and the rules of association or incorporation. The constitution sets out the expected numbers, roles, and responsibilities of the school board. If non-government schools wish to contemplate adding current students to the list of board or council membership, there are a number of issues that they should review and/or resolve first.
However, the first question that non-government schools should be asking is: 'Should there be student representation on our school board or do we provide other opportunities for them to be involved in decision processes that affect them?' Then, following the response to this query, there are a few big picture questions that should be answered:
- Do your rules of association contain a clause that allows for current students to be able to have a position on the board?
- Do your current rules preclude students from being on the board?
- If your school is an incorporated association, are students able to be 'members' of your association?
- Other than principals and business managers, non-government schools do not generally have other staff on their boards. Would it be impracticable if students were given a say in the governance of a school but the staff were not? (However, the ACT model and the Victorian model for government schools include staff on councils).
- In many non-government schools, principals do not have a vote on the board. If school students on the board are given a vote and the principal does not have a vote, would this place the students into a position of authority above the principal and would it not place the principal into a very difficult position? The same situation would apply if there were teachers or other paid staff on the board with a vote and the principal did not.
Of course there are probably many more questions that would need to be raised and answered, such as student access of financial data, before changing rules of constitution should even be contemplated. However, these examples are directly related to the school's constitution and governance and they should be the first major discussions to take place.
Schools may say that if a person is too young to vote in a government election then should that person be allowed to have vote and a formal say on the board of any organisation that is a company limited by guarantee or is an incorporated association? Section 201B of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) requires company directors to be at least 18 years of age. In addition, according to the Law Handbook 2017, the secretary of any incorporated association must be at least 18 years old. Many senior school students turn 18 during their final year at school. Therefore, unless there are specific rules within the constitution of the organisation that expressly prevent current students being members of your association or from applying for or becoming members of the school board or council, there may not be any other encumbrance to them being voted in at an annual general meeting.
In addition, non-government schools have contracts with the parents, not the children. As such, it could be argued that parents should be involved in board decision making processes and they are usually represented on school boards through the Parents & Friends Association or specific parent membership. Parent representatives on school boards can also provide student perspectives. Would the presence of students on the school board give the students a greater say than their parents (who are the other part of the contractual relationship) who are not on the board? Does this then create another possible conflict of interest?
Nonetheless, students are in schools because they have a right to be educated. Article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to an education. Article 29 states 'Education should develop each child’s personality and talents to the full. It should encourage children to respect their parents, their cultures and other cultures.' Schools also offer students both leadership roles and decision making roles through a number of established and valuable groups or processes. These groups or roles include:
- student prefects
- house or year group leaders or captains
- student representative councils
- student peer mentors
- playground monitors.
Article 12 of the Convention states: 'Children have the right to say what they think should happen when adults are making decisions that affect them and to have their opinions taken into account.' There is no argument that children should not be involved in decision making processes, but non-government schools need to decide to what level and in a manner befitting their age or maturity or experience. Would your school contemplate having senior school students on your board?