The purpose of a student council is to provide a participatory process and a level of limited self-governance for the students attending an educational institution. Student representative bodies (student councils) usually consist of students only, have a formal management structure (e.g. a board, president or chairperson, secretary, treasurer and other office holders) and a constitution. To become a member of a student council (or equivalent), you have to be eligible for membership (be a current student of the institution/school and sometimes be of a certain age), run as a candidate in the election and get elected. Some institutions do not run elections and instead either appoint people to the student council, or in the case of small schools, any student can become a member without having to be elected or appointed.
Student councils typically have limited powers to represent the students before the school management, education authorities, local politicians and umbrella organisations. They usually have an advisory function and their primary role is to make proposals to the principal or school management in matters concerning student wellbeing and school operations. These matters can range anywhere from the curriculum, extracurricular activities to youth work and other school services (organising festivals and other events at school).
Whereas in most cases, student councils serve the purpose of catering to the needs of the student body (through consultations, surveys, social actions and campaigns) and voicing their concerns in dealings with adults (such as teachers, principal and the school board). In some cases, student councils can also have certain rights given to them either by their constitution or in some countries, by legislation. In these cases, student councils can act independently, without seeking approval from the principal.
Key takeaways about student councils:
- Student councils are youth participatory mechanisms that are an important part of democracy in the formal education system. They are widespread across different levels of education (from general to higher education) and are commonplace across all EU member states.
- One of the indicators of the quality of these structures is the level and nature of genuine and meaningful youth participation. Are they fully youth-led or are they merely a tokenistic structure that is run by adults?
- Student councils in schools are often mentored by a youth worker or a teacher. It is important to acknowledge that adult facilitators play an important role in resourcing and mentoring the student council and acting as mediators between the school staff/management and the student body. However, adults should never ‘run the show’ and use young people as a front. Instead, they should play a supportive role.
- Given that student councils are a representative participatory structure, it is a universal good practice in the democratic world to have democratic mechanisms (elections) to determine the membership of student councils. It is also imperative for student councils to have an independent budget.