What & why?
One aim of schooling is to teach children to become a part of a democratic society. When educators and schools try to enable students’ meaningful participation it usually starts with a certain mindset and their will to surrender some of their power. But even if children are allowed to make decisions quite comprehensively and in various situations – e.g. with regard to what, when, where and with whom they learn –, democratic structures often still are very much dependent on grown-ups and their individual preferences, with one teacher probably being more willing to do so than others. At least, this was what a self-evaluation process at Laborschule Bielefeld’s primary level brought to the fore some years ago.
Laborschule’s educators wanted to go beyond individual preferences and what was already guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989. Therefore, they intended to create their own “Bill of Rights” – a school constitution that once and for all would institutionalise student participation at Laborschule and create transparent and binding rights for all students independent of teachers’ preferences.
What followed was an extensive school development process, in which Laborschule’s educators discussed every aspect of school life (e.g. learning, individual needs, clothing, breaks, spatial arrangements) in regard to the scale of student participation and their involvement in decision-making processes. These questions were summarised as follows:
- Which decisions are students allowed to make for themselves (self-determination)?
For example, students decided what they are going to eat throughout their school day.
- Which decisions are children allowed to make with others (co-determination)?
For example, how they want to conduct the daily assemblies in their small groups.
- Which decisions do educators reserve for themselves (no say)?
For example due to safety issues on school trips.
Finally, an agreement was reached in the form of a school constitution that was signed by every educator. In a next step, the constitution had to be filled with life. On the one hand, it was necessary to ensure that students became aware of the impact they can have in shaping their daily (school) lives. It is only by knowing their rights and learning how to realise them that students can actually have a voice and gain sustainable experiences of participation. On the other hand, the agreement between educators, too, need to be aware of and be willing to implement what has been written down in the constitution. This also includes new teachers who need be brought on board, thus encouraging children to think in a democratic way.
Creating a constitution is a process which needs time, energy and the focus from all people involved, but is really worthwhile! At Laborschule, it was accompanied by a research project as well as by external experts from the Institute for Participation and Education Kiel, who were extremely helpful in portraying what such a constitution could look like and who shared their experiences with regard to the benefits and challenges. Since then, changes to the constitution have been made from now and then to adapt it to the school’s needs.
While the constitution forms a legislative force of sorts, an executive force was needed as well. Therefore, a student parliament was incorporated as well as a forum for discussion and negotiation between children (even those who are very young).
The materials in this section provide insights into the processes that Laborschule underwent in order to institutionalise students’ participation.