An interesting initiative

Published May 24, 2024
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

PUNJAB’S School Education Department (SED) has recently set up ‘student councils’ in public sector elementary, high and higher secondary schools. The first elections for class representatives, president, vice president, general secretary and finance secretary took place on May 16, when 61,212 school representatives and other office bearers were elected in 15,303 elementary, high and higher secondary schools. Some 3.47 million children voted.

Student councils are not a new concept. Internationally, many school systems, private and public, have them. They are present in some private schools in Pakistan too. But this is a relative first for the public sector in Pakistan and the scale at which it was done was quite impressive.

Literature on student councils shows the latter can have a significant impact on students individually, on student-student, student-teacher and student-community interactions as well as on the school itself. Students gain in self-esteem and confidence, they get used to democratic values and traditions, they understand the value of arguments and learn decision-making and leadership among other skills.

Communication within and across stakeholders can improve as well. The teachers and management do not remain too distant from students, and even student interactions — as a student body — with the community can improve significantly. School can benefit from more involved and engaged student bodies. More co-curricular and sports activities take place, school discipline can improve, student grievances get addressed faster and better and the school can be more involved and engaged with the local community too.

Asking students to suddenly start participating in decision-making is going to be hard.

But the literature also points out that the question of student councils being able to do anything or not depends on a whole host of factors. One of the most important factors pertains to whether or not students feel their representatives have been selected/ elected through free, fair and transparent means. Student cooperation with the council depends on that.

Other factors include whether or not councils and representatives have any actual decision-making powers, access to some of the budget and freedom to act, whether the students have ample support from supervisors/ teachers, and whether teachers/ counsellors have been given adequate training on how they are supposed to work with student councils. If these are not present, the effectiveness of student councils is reduced. And sometimes, if students feel it is a waste of time engaging with student representatives who are selected at the management’s whim or have no actual powers, the impact of the councils can be negative as students become more sceptical about notions of representation and self-governance. This can make them uncooperative.

SED has started out cautiously. Knowing our distrust of people, democracy and representation as well as our particular history with student unions, it has made sure it calls these bodies ‘student councils’. SED has restricted eligibility to the top performers in class, who have at least an 80 per cent attendance record and a good standing in class and school. They have given powers to the school administration to remove members if they breach boundaries, and even do away with the council and re-elect it if things get out of bounds.

However, in the SED document on student councils, there is no mention of the budget that will be there for the council to use when organising activities and taking initiatives. One presumes these will have to be done out of school budgets. Do school budgets have the space to allow activities or to upscale them? Punjab schools do get a non-salary budget, but this has historically not been much for anything beyond repairs, whitewash, maintenance, a teacher or two on a short-term basis, or utility bills. Will the non-salary budget be enhanced, or a proportion of it earmarked for student council-inspired or organised activities? This remains to be seen.

Our teachers, head teachers, principals and education officers are not used to giving space for decision-making to students. Will they be able to do so? Democracy tends to be loud and messy. When you have a student council, with all class representatives there and if they are wanting to do things, there will be disagreements and arguments. Will our teachers and administrators be able to manage things effectively to ensure student participation and ownership? SED has not mentioned any training for teachers or administrators on this count so far. Without training, I presume, the results will be mixed. Some administrators will be able to manage, others will not. But, over time, SED will have to think this through. If they want more effectiveness, trainings will be needed.

A lot of researchers have observed that there is not a whole lot of teacher-student interaction in classes in public schools in Pakistan. Students are not encouraged to ask questions, they are not asked to give arguments, they are not made to debate, disagree, and so on. Respect for the teachers is interpreted in terms of compliance, silence and discipline. Asking students to suddenly start participating in decision-making is going to be hard. We will need time and perseverance and tolerance for mistakes as well.

Even at the level of teachers, when Punjab started the non-salary budget, it took a long time to ‘convince’ the head teachers to start spending it. It involved a lot of trainings too. So, to expect the system to pivot without hand-holding and training is asking for too much. Maybe it will happen in a year or two, when the results from the experiment are better known.

Students councils are a wonderful idea. SED has taken a good and bold step. It can be transformative for the students as well as for the schools. But for that to happen, we need to help teachers and students get used to the idea and experiment with the space they have been provided. And we will need patience. There will be plenty of mistakes but that is exactly what we want students to make. Otherwise, how will they learn? Let us see if SED can now follow up on the initiative and ensure its success.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2024

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