Andy Kemp

Student Leadership – A Right or a Privilege? – Part 1

By Andy | January 13, 2018 | 0 Comment

This is part one of a three part series of articles on student leadership

Around a year ago I spent a lot of time reflecting on how our prefect system worked at Wells Cathedral School. Like many schools our prefect system involved appointing around 20 students (making up about one fifth of our upper sixth) to be prefects for the year including a Head Boy and a Head Girl.

Over the years the process for appointing these students has changed a bit, moving from being entirely at the Head’s discretion, to a more democratic process which included, as part of the process, voting by staff and students.

The role of the prefects has also changed somewhat, from essentially being at the beck and call of the staff and responsible for maintaining discipline, to having responsibility for student leadership of particular aspects of school life such as teaching and learning, pastoral care or philanthropy.

What hadn’t changed however was that student leadership was something that was only available to the select few; it was a privilege bestowed on those who had been deemed by their peers or the staff to have shown leadership potential.

Then I came across an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled How Leadership Affects Students which set my mind thinking… I recommend you stop now and read that article before coming back to this!.

The issue they sought to address was:

”leaders tend to have higher cognitive ability, more self-confidence, and more motivation or drive — we don’t know much about whether these differences arise because leadership service changes individuals or because these individuals are selected for their preexisting skills.”

This article left me asking whether, like the stories about sporting success in Freakonomics (which point to fairly arbitrary things like date of birth leading to more experience and encouragement to take on sporting roles at a young age, which in turn leads on to these people being much more likely to become professional sports men and women in due course), leadership might be the same… Are we just pushing some students to take on leadership roles and opportunities within schools for similarly arbitrary reasons and therefore not providing everyone with the chance to develop their leadership potential.

So is it that those students who show leadership skills in the lead up to the selection process are natural leaders, or is it that they’ve been exposed to more leadership opportunities during their school careers so far…

Which raises one of the core questions – is leadership an innate quality or something that students can develop… There’s lots of academic research that shows that leadership is something that people can develop and get better at (that’s not to preclude the possibility that some people start from a higher baseline with innate abilities – as is the case with other skills). So if students can develop leadership skills, then I’d argue it is the responsibility of schools to provide those opportunities to as many students as possible.

All of which brings me full circle – should the opportunity for student leadership be a right for all students, or a privilege for those who have a higher starting baseline. After much reflection I felt strongly that it should be a right for everyone, and so using that as a starting point we set about redesigning our student leadership process to include a much larger number of students than the existing prefect system.

None of this takes away from the fact that there are many other opportunities for student leadership in schools from form reps, school council reps, sports captains, DoE, CCF, etc… but having watched the positive benefits for those involved in student leadership through our existing prefect structure over the years, I feel there is something special in the experience that this provides. The question is can it be scaled up without losing the very thing that makes it special?

In the second part of this series, I’ll look at what we decided to implement this year as a result…


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