Building Democracy Into Institutional Life: Sarah Bonnell Girls School

Alistair Rooms, Community Organiser with Newham Citizens, Citizens UK,

Reflecting on my own journey as an organiser, it started, studying a Politics Degree at a highly political environment at SOAS, University of London. I learned lots about politics in the classroom, but being involved in organising and public life at the university taught me how to ‘do politics’. I learned through experience about the sometimes tough inner workings of democracy in institutions. I learned of the need, for everyone to take responsibility to build a democratic culture and significantly what happens when people don’t make space together to wrestle with complex ideas or disagree respectfully. The experience and specifically the institution shaped me, my values and my work today.

Institutional life offers an opportunity for us to build a democratic culture and instill this within the life of our organisations and the people within the organisation. In many ways, institutional life has taken a back seat in the modern world, with a ‘now culture’ and a politics shaped by twitter outrage, mobilising, instant u-turns, quick wins and explosive social movements. But often it is our institutions that do the quiet work of shaping people behind the scenes and investing in the young minds who go on to shape the world.

Behind every Greta Thunburg there’s a teacher, telling them they can make a difference, a school supporting them to make change and equipping them with the belief in themselves to do so.

Theologian, Walter Wink argues, that organisational systems have a soul or a ‘collective personality’. It isn’t controlled by any particular person but exists in the inbetweenness of people. In a religious sense a kind of inner spirituality within an organisation, or in a secular sense a collective culture. One of the privileges of working as an organiser is that I get to understand what the soul of an institution has been, is now and support those leaders within it to build on this history. 

When it comes to Sarah Bonnell Girls School, I meet young women who are ex-students across the borough all the time. They are always full of self-belief, articulate and willing to fight for what is right in whatever field they are in. The school has shaped incredible young women from across East London and continues to do so. The ‘soul’ of the organisation is hard at work in shaping these women. Below, have a read of how Georgia Biltcliffe, has built on her institution’s history and embedded democracy and participation into the life of the school.

– If you’re part of an institution, what is the soul of your organisation and how are you shaping it and ensuring democratic culture lives in the life of your people? 

Georgia Biltcliffe -PSHCE Curriculum Lead & Modern Foreign Languages Teacher at Sarah Bonnell School

Sarah Bonnell School has a long-standing emphasis on student leadership, with a leadership and election model which reflects the values of democracy, as well as the ethos of the school. This is an incredibly successful, inclusive and aspirational leadership model which encourages students to aim high, ensure their voices are heard and make a real change.

However, it could be said that historically students in the Key Stage 3 Year Councils (Years 7, 8 and 9) were not as involved in school decision making/project ownership as perhaps we (or they!) would have liked. These students would perhaps sit in Executive Council meetings with their older counterparts, often nervous to offer ideas or voice issues that were important to them. By no means was there a lack of inspiration or aspiration, but rather an anxiety to speak out in front of their peers, older year groups and teachers.

But I believe we can safely say that this has now changed, with Year 9 students often influencing and sometimes leading these sessions, positively overwhelming both students and staff with their ideas and impressing with their passion. This zeal and eagerness has in turn reverberated throughout the school, with ever more Key Stage 3 students willing to engage in both the politics of school life, but also more generally in their local area. These students are passionate about making a change.

Starting to work with Citizens, and on an organising model, was the turning point for the then Year 8 Student Council. Working with our organiser Alistair Rooms on the City Safe scheme enabled our students to take ownership of their leadership, empowering them to believe that their voice was just as important as anyone else’s. As a teacher, it was sometimes difficult to sit back and let the students lead sessions – it is normally second nature to offer my own ideas or try and guide a conversation! However, one of the guiding rules of Citizens is “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves”, which in turn allows people to take genuine ownership at all levels. This switch from a directive “teacher” approach to a more supportive and facilitating “coach” role has enabled the students to lead sessions, network at events, build relationships with a variety of stakeholders (including the Mayor of Newham!) and decide on project foci.

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Of course I believe that Sarah Bonnell girls are special – they are to me, including all the members of the student council! However, really, we are no different from any other school in terms of how we were able to encourage student leadership and enable the girls to voice their opinions, and have them listened to. This can be replicated anywhere, with any group of students – if you have the right “ingredients”:

  • Have a mantra – we quite often say to the girls “be the change you wish to see”, which encourages them to take ownership and move away from reliance on their teachers or other authority figures. 
  • Reward students – this can be big: for example those with excellent attendance at council meetings were rewarded with trips and visits, or small: all students were celebrated in year group assemblies and received a Year Council badge for their blazer that they wore with pride. 
  • Include them in decision making, or give the power of this to them – council meetings should be about sharing ideas and coming to a group consensus, not a teacher making a list of 3 suggestions and having the students pick one. Students will often discuss a topic in groups of 3 or 4, then join another group to widen the discussion, and finally feed back to the council and the teachers as a whole. This ensures that any decisions made are joint ones, and every member of the council feels heard.
  • Embrace all of your students’ characteristics and differences – some members of our council love nothing more than standing up and presenting in assemblies or at events, or chairing borough-wide commissions on youth violence, but we also have students who contribute in other ways e.g. designing posters, taking minutes, researching online. Make sure that all students know they are valued, whatever they bring to the table.

    This is of course not an exhaustive list, but these four “ingredients” are a fantastic place to start. So, go forth and transform your student council from the inside out! 

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