The days of heroic leadership being the mainstay of modern and progressive schools seem to be numbered.
The figureheads, be they headmasters, Captains of School or sports captains leading the charge in isolation are becoming fewer and further between.
But Freddie Main, assistant head, pupil support, at Merchiston School in Edinburgh, says that pupil leadership is the way forward.
He said: ‘Forward-thinking establishments now opt for a more complete approach to leadership through the instilling of positive values that are dear to the business and to its people, and through enabling those within the structures to lead themselves and others to achieve excellence by doing simple things well and by habit.’
Clarity of vision and consistency of the message are key to this so that all parties feel included and part of something bigger than themselves.
Freddie continued: ‘At Merchiston we aim to develop leadership skills in all of our pupils and provide opportunities for our young people to build their skills and confidence through a wide variety of avenues.
‘Our traditional leadership roles such as Senior Prefectships and Prefectships remain some of the highest leadership honours on offer and these positions can be prepared for throughout a pupil’s career.
‘However, some pupils may only develop later in terms of leadership and show great promise even in their Lower Sixth Form year (Year 12/S5), where they go through specific prefect training and participate in the Lower Sixth Form helper scheme in the boarding houses.
‘The Prefect teams have a major role to play in terms of helping to run and manage aspects of the houses and departments, as well as helping to set the tone and ethos of the school through their day to day example, and these roles are highly sought after by the pupils as opportunities to further develop their leadership experience.
‘Yet these are not the only major roles in schools anymore and even through sports captaincy the pupils have opportunities to have a say in how their sessions are coached and even to lead aspects of the coaching themselves. It would be rare to find just one leader in a Merchiston sports team, instead you would be likely to find leadership groups that share the load of leadership and take time to discuss issues off and on the field, deciding what would be best for the collective and then using their skills to implement the plan.’
‘Pupil Voice’ has been a buzz phrase for quite a few years now.
Freddie continued: ‘To truly see it in action is a great thing and can really enhance the experience for all pupils. At Merchiston there are myriad forums where pupils can have their say and contribute to school life, and pupils can put themselves forward as well as well as being nominated to represent any of the committees. These elected posts give opportunities for pupils of all ages to gain experience in leadership. They are taught early on that the major aspect of leadership is in fact service and that there is great responsibility that goes hand in hand with any such role.
‘In my own experience peer to peer learning is one of the most powerful teaching tools available, and when the penny dropped for me as a young teacher that “it is not about me” I felt much more confident in my ability to let go and spend more time facilitating and enabling learning, teaching and leadership in others. In my former role as Head of Design and Technology I actively encouraged peer to peer learning and even built it directly into elements of the junior school courses, where we would see pupils thriving by teaching skills and developing empathy through conveying messages to others in ways those being taught could understand.
‘We would have not only departmental Prefects helping out with teaching lessons but also boys who had free periods asking if they could pitch in with junior classes. Unsurprisingly this was thought of very highly when we were inspected and we were also acknowledged by the Technical Teachers’ Association with an award for consistent excellence in 2015. Needless to say, this type of win-win scenario is very much encouraged at Merchiston and we see the great potential in our pupils to enhance the experience of others.’
They run several volunteer programmes at Merchiston, one of them is the Koinonia (Community) outreach initiative where pupils spend time each week at local primary schools, old folks’ homes or at the food bank, serving and caring for others. These opportunities are invaluable and further develop leadership, empathy and compassion in the pupils, fantastic qualities that will stand them in good stead whatever they do in life.
Freddie added: ‘We introduced the MVP, Mentors in Violence Prevention, programme last year and have seen this continue to grow. Sessions are delivered to pupils in their Sixth Form Life Skills classes on issues such as anti-bullying, controlling behaviour, alcohol and consent, and pupils are invited to participate from the perspective of the bystander.
‘These sessions are very powerful and aim to develop empathy, the ability to think through options, and make good decisions that challenge negative behaviour while keeping themselves out of harm’s way. These have had a positive impact on relationships in school and are fantastic at removing the fear from situations where one may think that they are the only ones with a certain point of view, and would therefore be much less likely to speak up and do the right thing.
‘As well as receiving these sessions, the pupils in the Sixth Form can apply to become MVP Mentors, where they then receive teacher training from staff to deliver the same types of session to our pupils in Third Form (Year 9/S1) and Fourth Form (Year 10/S2). These vital messages and skills coming from older pupils, our younger pupil’s ‘heroes’, have a much stronger impact than when they come from teachers as they are closer in age and experience and there are fewer barriers to prevent them talking openly.’
Skills development is key to promoting positive leadership in schools and if a pupil has the opportunity in a safe environment to develop their skills they will become more confident in thinking through ideas and presenting them to others. Opportunities are available through debating, English Speaking Board presentations, delivering talks and presentations in whole school and sectional assemblies, as well as in houses and lessons.
Freddie concluded: ‘Through peer mentoring, skills development and having opportunities to develop and hone their leadership skills, we feel we provide our pupils with the necessary tools to thrive and to play their part in leading the school to excellence, whether they are a J4 (Year 4/P4) pupil simply doing their best in a Maths lesson, or the Captain of School delivering a presentation in front of 600 people. We have learned as staff that “it’s not about us” and we believe the pupils hold the keys to the future; we simply want to provide them with the doors of opportunity.’