Student Leadership

Over the past few weeks since the beginning of school we, in High School, have been building structures for student representation and providing opportunities for student leadership. Dr. Wendell Hausdorff and Dr. Jesus Castillo-Coronado have been hard at work preparing a range of projects ranging from School Council to Global Conservation Alliance work.

In many schools, however, lip service is paid to this very important aspect of school life. The history of student leadership is a very interesting one. John Dewey wrote about it in 1916 in ‘Democracy in Education’ and yet student representation, leadership and contribution to decision making can all too often simply be token gestures.

Why should we encourage real and genuine student leadership? Aren’t the teachers paid to be in charge? Won’t the students just want things, which they can’t possibly have and they should be busy with their exam work in any case?

To answer these often asked questions I have looked at the work of John West-Burnham and Kaye Johnson both seasoned educators and experts in the importance of the student voice and representation in schools. West Burnham (2007) asserts that: Schools engage in student voice, student leadership or student empowerment programmes for a variety of reasons. Significantly however all programmes share the same characteristics.

  • These programmes lie at the heart of building community and social capital within the school.
  • These programmes build hope-and the belief that students can make a difference. 
  • These programmes build trust within the school’s community.
  • Students are a powerful resource in the development of school and community partnerships.
  • Investing in student leadership potential is a direct long-term investment in the community.
  • These programmes are a direct investment in growing leadership potential.
  • These programmes build internal and external social capital.

Organisations such as The Global Young Leaders Conference and The European Youth Forum articulate the need to develop exceptional leadership characteristics in young people. Professor Steven Hill writing in Social Europe Journal this month describes his recent meeting with some of the young leaders at the heart of the ‘Arab Spring’ movement. The piece makes striking reference to the fact that leaders can no longer be the people who can shout the loudest or who have the greatest (often inherited or conferred) power and status. Indeed it seems that current traditional leaders in many organisations: political, business, educational and religious may be clinging to their power but have lost their authority. Young people wherever they are and whatever their circumstances are simply taking the chance to speak about what concerns them particularly if it directly affects their lives. Social media enables them to have their voices heard and to influence decision making in an authentic and participative manner as never before.

Kaye Johnson, in her work ‘Children’s Voices’ (2004), writes about the necessity of, establishing democratic structures for staff, pupils and parents in schools. Schools should be creating mechanisms for listening to what students say and creating genuine opportunities for critical reflection and participation in decision- making. She also speaks about recognizing and celebrating achievements in a systematic and innovative way, which involves students in the processes.

The second question, ‘Won’t children just want what they can’t have?’ is often asked. My experience as an educator and parent has taught me that adults invariably underestimate teenagers. I have already seen many examples here at St. John’s of incredible perception, unusual wisdom and the ability to articulate beliefs and a commitment to following projects through. St Johns has numerous vehicles for real engagement with students and opportunities to make positive change. I will be writing about them in subsequent blogs. In a sometimes transient and increasingly multi-cultural environment student leadership programs co-created and developed by students are essential. Universities are demanding more than top grades. They want to see students who can demonstrate leadership qualities. The Harvard University admissions website states: ‘Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but we also seek people with enthusiasm, creativity and strength of character.’

A compelling argument for a genuine and innovative student leadership programme is articulated by John West Burnham (2007) ‘When schools and communities work together they build ownership-students and teachers, families and communities can work together to develop ideas and make them happen.’

It seems as though different sectors of our St. John’s community are interested in the same things, by collaborating and having the students at the heart of the process achievements could well be stellar.


Hill, S. (2011) The Arab Spring is an Opportunity for Europe. Social Europe Journal. Johnsons, K. (2004) Children’s Voices: Pupil Leadership in Primary Schools. International Research Associate Perspectives.                                                                                            West-Burnham, J. (2007) Schools and Communities Working Together to Change Children’s Lives. Network Continuum

Deborah Brook, High School principal