The student voice

Mrs P Harvey-Short, Associate Dean
2013-02-06 Student council induction ceremony
2013 Student Council Induction Ceremony

It is an interesting phenomenon that, in each year of my experience co-ordinating the Year 12 cohort, the incoming Student Council expresses surprise and wonder at the intensity of the role and responsibilities of the Council. This body, and its predecessors, have existed for many productive years and is the ‘engine room’ of the student body.

The Council’s role is to provide a voice for the students; act as role models; be the prime conduit between the students, staff and community; and nurture the spirit of Girls Grammar. Its composition has varied over the years and is currently a manageable size of twenty-six elected members: the Head Girls; the eighteen House Captains; two Service Captains; the QGSSSA and Club Sports Captains representing all elected sporting captains; and two Arts Captains representing debating, music, art, drama and publications.

The concept of the voice of students is a very important one. By providing students with an opportunity to articulate concepts and opinions and see ideas come to fruition, Bahou (2011) states that a school environment may be enriched twofold. It can provide teachers with insights into learning, teaching and schooling with students acting as ‘expert witnesses’, and it can empower students to ‘actively shape their education as citizens’ (Bahou, 2011, p. 3).

The Student Council environment aims to provide a forum where students can express opinions, formulate ideas and plan implementation, thus playing an active and meaningful role and making a significant contribution to the fabric of the School. However, the School must guard against exclusivity where the ‘authorised’ student voices limit, rather than enhance, opportunity and efficacy. One method to ensure an inclusive voice is the suggestion box, which this year’s Council is enthusiastic to reinstate. This provides an opportunity for all students to express their concerns, to have these issues discussed at the Student Council table, and to be dealt with in a meaningful and efficient manner.

The Council is also a legitimate attempt to increase student participation in decision making within the School and reflects the eight levels of Roger Hart’s ‘Ladder of Participation’ (cited in Bahou, 2011, p. 6). The lower three rungs indicate non-participation where students are tokens or decoration. The Girls Grammar Student Council operates within the top five rungs of this model, resulting in student-initiated and -directed concepts and outcomes.

The 2013 Student Council, inducted today, has prepared for the coming year with intensive sessions in Year 11 assemblies on leadership, by attending the Halogen Young Leaders Day in November 2012, and a two day conference held at the School in January. The School Student Council Conference is in its fourth year and seeks to provide time for establishing the year’s theme and motto, further developing required skill sets to enhance each leader’s abilities, and discussing each individual’s strengths, thus understanding what they bring to, and the subsequent power of, the Council.

The blend of power a group can possess is elegantly expressed by Bahou (2011, p. 7) when she quotes the educational and peace activist, Miriam Starhawk. Starhawk expounds three types of power: ‘power over’, ‘power-from-within’, and ‘power with’. ‘Power over’ is of a hierarchical nature characterised by dominance and control; ‘power-from-within’ relates to the individual connecting with others and the environment and capitalising on personal skills and strengths; and ‘power with’ refers to the power created by a group of equals communicating and forming alliances to achieve collegial outcomes. The Student Council strives for a combination of the power-from-within, that which each individual brings to a group, and the power with, the corporate power created by a group of equals. It will be through this collective force that goals will be achieved in 2013.

The conference also provided shared experiences to enhance bonding and reflection about the organisation of 2013. This experience was enthusiastically received by the girls who were most positive in their feedback.

I think the most effective aspect was the discussions run by the Head Girls… We came up with so many ideas, and the Student Council knows where it wants to go in 2013. Also, we had to work in an environment where everybody had to voice their opinions and at first it was difficult but, by the end of the conference, we had learnt a lot about how our particular Student Council will operate.

The girls gained much from the open forums and discussion.

The most effective aspect of the two days was the planning session of the motto, theme and goals in the coming year. This gave us the chance to bond and work together properly as the Student Council, providing ideas and making group decisions.

The 2013 Student Council combines the dominant strengths — explored with the expertise of the School Psychologist, Mrs J Forbes — of fairness, judgement/open-mindedness, kindness, curiosity and the capacity to love. Interestingly, fairness, curiosity and capacity to love have been dominant strengths of the Student Councils over the last three years. These strengths coupled with this year’s goals of grade integration, innovative ideas for a new era and School spirit resulted in the 2013 motto announced by Head Girls Elizabeth Redmond (12G) and Sophie Weir (12B):

Embrace the new! Link the Blue!

The Student Council has the challenge of conveying the goals and theme to the student body, providing interesting experiences to engage the School, representing each Grammar girl, giving each one a voice and ushering in a new era.

The School has the challenge of embracing the ideas and, perhaps, broadening the brief of the Student Council. There is a genuine opportunity to expand the role of the Student Council, utilising the student voice, taking the role from comfort issues, entertainment and spirit to impacting more powerfully on learning and exceptional scholarship by engaging the students in more educational dialogue.


Bahou, L. (2011, January). Rethinking the challenges and possibilities of student voice and agency. Educate [Special Issue], 2–14.

Dempster, N., Stevens, E., & O’Keefe, M. (2011). Student and youth leadership: A focused literature review. Leading and Managing, 17(2), 1–20.

Lodge, C. (2005). From hearing voices to engaging in dialogue: Problematising student participation in school improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 6(2), 125–146.

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