School parliament


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Contents

Model for a school parliament

Establishing a school parliament—Constitution

Model for a school parliament

Background

The following program materials have been developed as a parliamentary-style model for use in conducting proceedings of a primary school student representative council (SRC). It is based on a number of institutional features of the Legislative Assembly for the ACT.

Separately from a school’s SRC arrangements, the materials can also be utilised by upper primary teachers to meet the requirements for teaching the Australian Curriculum Civics and Citizenship strand.

The program acquaints students with a number of key democratic concepts, including the importance of elections and the role of elected representatives in a parliamentary system. It can also be undertaken as a school outreach activity where the Assembly’s education and engagement officers conduct sessions to meet the particular needs of individual schools.

Structure of this document

This document has been structured to assist teachers and students with the establishment and operation of a school parliament. The first section sets out the broad objectives for the school parliament model including options on the use of resources by the SRC and the classroom teacher. The second section provides detailed information on establishing a school parliament through the development of a constitution. The constitution formalises the parliament and may include options for electing members, parliamentary roles and responsibilities, suggested floor plan for a chamber and how sitting days might be organised. The final section of the document contains appendices which include a number of parliamentary templates and a training role play to support the operation of the school parliament.

Assembly education and engagement program

The Assembly’s education and engagement program offers a wide range of different programs for primary school students that can be tailored to meet the needs of teachers and students.

Schools groups are welcome to visit the Legislative Assembly to participate in school parliament role play activities, conduct mock elections and participate in sessions with Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).

For more information, contact the Assembly’s Education and Engagement Officer on (02) 62053016 or LAeducation@parliament.act.gov.au

Teachers are also able to access a range of other information about the operation of the Assembly through our website.

The school parliament

Objectives

A school parliament provides an opportunity for students to be involved in school governance and decision making through a group of democratically elected students who represent the views of all students at the school. The parliament provides an opportunity to:

Implementation options

The Legislative Assembly for the ACT—the only legislature in Australia with responsibility for two levels of government (local and state/territory levels)—is the basis of the school parliament model used in this resource.

The program has been developed for, but is not limited to, a whole-of-school parliament. The resources can also be used in a classroom to explore civics and citizenship curriculum to support inquiry questions such as:

Whether the resources included in the program are used to facilitate role play activities, form the basis of class discussions or activities, or used as the basis of a fully-fledged school SRC, they can be scaled up or down to suit the requirements of each school and each classroom.

Other resources are also available on the Legislative Assembly website to support classroom teaching of civics and citizenship curriculum.

Establishing a school parliament—Constitution

In working towards the development of a school (or class) parliament, it can be useful to first establish a constitution that sets out the aims, membership and operation of the parliament. The constitution needn’t be a long document or cover the wide range of issues that are included in the Australian Constitution or in the ACT Self-Government Act (note—the Australian Capital Territory (Self-Government) Act 1988 is a Commonwealth Act, which amongst other things, established the Legislative Assembly. In many respects it is the effective constitution of the ACT) but the process of involving students in the development of such as document can be an important learning opportunity all on its own.

The constitution can be discussed, reviewed and amended over time and any changes can be approved through a vote of the members in the parliament, or, through a referendum of the classrooms or entire school depending on each schools’ requirements.

Below is an exploration of some of the matters which a school or class might wish to include in their constitution (a template framework for a school parliament constitution is provided in Appendix 1).

Schools may already have documents governing the operation of the SRC that can be used as a source document for the creation of a constitution for the parliament.

Adapting the model

Schools may wish to emphasise the cooperative dimensions of government and opposition interactions in a school parliament in order to promote a greater sense of unity and inclusiveness. For instance, the government, opposition and crossbench members, rather than taking up adversarial positions on various issues, could instead work together to achieve common objectives. It is not uncommon for members from different political parties to agree on legislation and to work towards similar goals—the spirit of cooperation and working across the chamber, is an approach that is likely to be more well suited in a school setting.

Alternatively, where the parliamentary model is being used in roleplay activities (and not student government or SRC settings), exploring the underlying nature of the adversarial political dimensions of parliamentary proceedings, the roles of government, opposition and crossbench members can be performed in a more traditional manner, where questioning, debate and disagreement on particular policies or ideas are encouraged.

The constitution

Naming your school parliament

The school parliament will need a name that formally identifies the body and creates a recognised brand for use in any communication and documentation which is produced by the parliament.

Aims and functions

This section sets out the purpose of the school parliament which is often based around giving students an active say in what happens in their school. The areas of responsibility for the parliament, where students can meaningfully contribute to improving their school through their representation, decisions and activities, should be clearly outlined.

Members

This section should set out who is eligible to be a member of the parliament, the number of members that the body will have, a code of conduct governing the behaviour of members, procedures for replacing a member who leaves (new election or recount of original votes).

The size of the parliament will vary for individual schools depending on their requirements. Consideration should be given to ensuring the structure and size of the parliament facilitates the timely completion of work, ensures that representation is equitable and broad based, and that students are given a sense of ownership over the body.

Members of a school parliament can play an important leadership role in modelling the expected standards of behaviour within the school community in order that everyone feels secure, happy and free to strive towards their full potential. All members of a school parliament are expected to adhere to the values of the school and should be demonstrated in their relationships and interactions with students and staff.

Pledge of office

A ‘pledge of office’ after being elected is one way to highlight the importance of students’ roles as elected representatives. A pledge could be given in front of the school community at an assembly or a special function. The pledge might be as simple as the following short statement or could include additional material from the schools’ values:

I [insert name of student] willingly accept office in the [insert school name] school parliament.

I promise to carry out my duties to the school parliament to the best of my ability, bring to the attention of parliament all matters of concern to my fellow students to help make [insert school name] a school where every student can be happy and successful.

Electing members

The number of members in a parliament will be determined by each school. However, where possible, an odd number of members is preferable as it will enable decisions or recommendations of the parliament to be decided by a majority (i.e. half of the members + 1).

The term of office should also be established prior to election, this could vary from a school term through to an entire school year. Elections ACT has a number of resources that can be used to help set up and run school parliament elections on the Elections ACT website.

Students interested in being a member of the school parliament would typically go through the process of nominating to stand as a candidate. Schools can facilitate a pre-election period in which students are able to address their peers—usually their class or year group—outline their ideas and plans as well as giving some general biographical information. Students should be given guidelines for nominating and campaigning to ensure a free and fair election. These could include:

Elections can be held in groups determined by the school (e.g. by each class or year group). Elections should be by confidential ballot (i.e. where students write the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper which is placed in a secure ballot box).

All students are typically able to vote and if a student is standing for election they are able to vote for themselves.

Replacing members

A student who leaves the school parliament will need to be replaced. There are usually two options for the replacement process:

  1. Hold a by-election—the class or year that elected the departing member would vote again for a new member. Nominations would be called for, there would be a short campaign and the students would vote.
  2. Countback—involves looking at which student came second in the previous election and requires that voting information from each election is kept for possible future countbacks. This is the method used for Members of the Legislative Assembly under the Hare-Clark electoral system. Ballot papers from each election are kept and a countback is conducted to determine the next person eligible to be the new member.

Parliamentary roles and responsibilities

There are a number of positions within a school parliament that perform special roles and responsibilities.These are set out below.

Every member of the parliament is eligible to put their hand up to stand for these positions. However, the process of appointing different roles can be useful for reinforcing leadership responsibilities that already exist within the school. For instance, school captains and vice captains would be suitable choices if they are members (schools could also examine integrating the process for electing captains into school parliament arrangements so that, for example, the school captain is Chief Minister and vice captains are Deputy Chief Minister or ministers).

Members can be elected to positions following a nomination process. Where there is more than one nominee, members can hold a vote. In the Assembly, positions such as Speaker and Chief Minister are elected by secret ballot using a ballot box and individual voting papers and school parliaments can adopt a similar approach for all the positions listed below.

The support teacher should act as the Speaker/Clerk until a member is elected to these roles. Members not standing in the election for particular positions could assist the teacher to count votes.

To gain a deeper understanding of the roles and responsibilities of members’ consideration could be given to rotating the roles each term or semester. This would involve members from the opposition and cross bench taking on the positions in government and conversely the government members becoming opposition and cross bench members. A complete rotation would also include the Speaker and Clerk positions.

Speaker

The Speaker is the head of the parliament and sits at the front of the chamber. The Speaker essentially chairs the meeting of the chamber. It can be useful to rotate the Deputy Speaker into the role of Speaker from time to time in order that both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are able to participate in parliamentary discussions about particular school issues (in normal parliamentary practice, when the Speaker or Deputy Speaker is in the chair, they do not participate in debates).  The Speaker is responsible for maintaining order and ensuring the smooth running of the sitting by:

Deputy Speaker (optional position to allow rotation of Speaker)

The Deputy Speaker, in the absence of the Speaker, performs duties of the Speaker (as outlined above) and contributes to debates and discussions in the parliament as a normal member when not in the chair.

Clerk

Traditionally the Clerk (In Australia, pronounced c-l-a-r-k) is not an elected member of a parliament but is responsible for advising the Speaker and ensuring the proceedings are conducted according to the rules. However, for the purposes of providing additional opportunities for student involvement, under this model, the Clerk is treated as an elected member and will have the opportunity to participate in debates. It is suggested that the three Clerk positions be rotated so that each student gets a chance to be a member representative as this is difficult to do while undertaking the responsibilities of Clerk, Deputy Clerk and Assistant Clerk. The Clerk may be responsible for:

Deputy Clerk/Serjeant-at-Arms

The Deputy Clerk and Serjeant-at-Arms will assist the Clerk in the duties listed above and, in addition, may be responsible for:

Assistant Clerk (optional position to allow rotation of Clerks)

The Assistant Clerk may be responsible for performing the duties of the Clerk/Deputy Clerk when one of these positions is absent and contributing to the parliament as a member when not acting as the Clerk/Deputy Clerk.

Chief Minister

The Chief Minister is the leader of the government responsible, with the ministers, for implementing the decisions and laws passed in the school parliament. The Chief Minister may be responsible for:

Deputy Chief Minister

The Deputy Chief Minister is the second senior member of the government leadership team. Traditionally the Deputy Chief Minister is also a minister and may be responsible for:

Leader of the Opposition

The Leader of the Opposition plays an important role in a parliamentary democracy by questioning the Chief Minister and ministers on what they have been doing in order to keep the government accountable for the decisions being made. While this can be an adversarial role at times, often the opposition and the government agree about what needs to be done and will work together to ensure this happens. As noted earlier, a cooperative, non-adversarial approach may be more suited well-suited when the model is used as school parliament. The Leader of the Opposition may be responsible for:

Deputy Leader of the Opposition

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition is the second senior member of the opposition leadership team and supports the Leader of the Opposition to fulfill their responsibilities. In the absence of the Leader of the Opposition the Deputy performs the duties of the Leader of the Opposition (as outlined above).

Ministers

Ministers each have a portfolio and work with the Chief Minister to implement the decisions and laws passed in the school parliament. They may be responsible for:

Ministers could each take on an area of portfolio responsibility with the supervising teacher determining ministerial positions in line with school policies and requirements. The school parliament can determine the number of ministers and areas of responsibilities, suggested ministries could include, but are not limited to:

Members

Members are elected to represent all students from their class or year group. Members can perform a variety of roles including being on ministerial committees as government members, forming the shadow ministry with the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition or sitting on the cross bench.

Opposition members form a shadow ministry that is responsible for commenting on particular areas of government activity, these members are referred to as shadow ministers. In the parliament, shadow ministers will often ask questions of the ministers that they ‘shadow’ and will also take the lead in debating issues connected to their areas of shadow portfolio responsibility.

Members from minor parties and independent members sit in the section of the chamber known as the cross bench. When the government does not hold a majority of seats in the parliament, cross bench members may hold what is commonly referred to as the ‘balance of power’. Their vote may decide the outcome of an issue that is before the Assembly when the government and opposition hold opposing positions.

Members may be responsible for:

Support teachers

A support teacher with a special interest in school government can provide a vital link between the students, staff and the school management. The teacher will be able to support the students by helping them develop skills in communication, leadership and decision making. They can also help by providing information on school policy, advice on implementing decisions and administrative back-up to the members of the school parliament.

Classroom teachers

Where the model is used for role play activities, classroom teachers will obviously play a key role. Classroom teachers can adapt various aspects of the model to suit the particular needs of the class. For instance, it is possible to scale down the number of positions or to relax some of the requirements around minute-taking. It is also possible to debate and discuss hypothetical policies and ideas to illustrate various features of parliamentary practice, rather than using the model to make decisions about classroom rules.

Parliamentary chamber

The structure of the chamber will depend on the number of members in the school parliament. Traditionally, parliamentary chambers are setup with the Speaker at the front and the Clerk and Deputy Clerk sitting in front of the Speaker. Government members sit to the right of the Speaker, opposition members to the left, and cross bench at the base between the government and opposition members.

This model suggests 25 Members, which is the same number of members as the Assembly. However, numbers can be adjusted depending on size of the parliament and roles allocated. Suggested arrangements for a 25-member parliament are as follows:

Diagram showing a basic set out of a chamber for an MPI role-play.

To pass a bill in a 25 member parliament, 13 members need to vote yes (majority vote=half of the members+1).

Sittings of the school parliament

This section of the school parliament constitution should set out how sittings will operate. It needs to include:

Bills

A bill is a proposed law and is usually presented to the parliament by ministers. However, it can also be presented by opposition and crossbench members. In order for a bill to become an act, a majority of members in the parliament must vote in favour of the bill for it to pass. Bills in the school parliament are proposed actions that the members debate and vote on. Each bill should:

An example bill is provided in Appendix 5.

In the Commonwealth, a bill does not become an act until it has been given Royal assent by the Governor-General. In the states, Royal assent is given by the Governor. In the ACT, Royal assent is not required, instead a bill becomes an act, after the Assembly has passed the bill, it has been certified by the Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel have published the act on the ACT Legislation Register at the request of the Speaker.

In the case of a school parliament, it may be useful for the school principal and/or executive to give final approval to a bill before it becomes an act (i.e. before, it is formally agreed that the proposal in the bill will be actioned). This enables the degree of self-determination facilitated by the parliament to be balanced with the need to ensure that proposals flowing from students are in line with the values and requirements of the school community and school policy.

Bill approval

All school parliament bills that have passed should be notified to the school principal and/or executive. The Speaker sends a letter on behalf of the members of the school parliament asking for approval for the bill to proceed (Appendix 6). Once the principal has approved the decision the members will be able to plan and implement the activity as outlined in the bill.

If necessary, it is the responsibility of the Chief Minister, together with the responsible minister and accompanied by the supervising teacher, to meet with the principal and/or executive to discuss any bills from the parliament. Where there might be conflicts with school policies or other concerns, the Chief Minister could be asked to make amendments to the bill to bring it into line.

Question time

Question time is an important feature of almost all Westminster-style parliaments. It gives members the chance to ask questions of government ministers without any prior notice on the topic. Questions that are asked at question time must be relevant to a minister’s portfolio responsibilities (for example the environment, sport and communications).

Opposition members can often use question time to ask questions that scrutinise the ministers’ performance. Government members (who are not ministers) will often use question time to ask questions that highlight government initiatives and achievements.

Reports

Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition all need to report to the school parliament regularly. There may not be time for every minister to report at every sitting, this will depend on the time allowed for sittings. Reporting could be allocated on a rotational basis, if there are urgent items that need to be reported, these should be prioritised. It is suggested that a time limit be allocated for the reporting period of the sitting.

The reports should contain information on what the member has been doing, including new ideas for bills, any problems reported to them by other members of the student body, progress on activities they and other members are planning or involved in and conclude with an action item they will be completing for the next sitting (where they will be reporting). There is scope to determine the level of reporting and the time allocated as the parliamentary term progresses to see what works and what doesn’t.

Voting

Every member has the right to cast one vote and for a bill to pass a majority is required (half of the members+1). Only student members can vote, the support teacher does not get a vote. In crafting the constitution, the school parliament can decide if proxy votes from absent members will be accepted.

First Sitting

The first sitting will require the parliamentary roles to be filled. Where it is school policy that captains and vice captains are automatically members of the parliament, the position of Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister could be allocated to these roles (again, it is possible for schools to integrate elections for the captaincy positions with elections for a school parliament).

Alternatively, parliamentary roles can be elected by student members of the parliament by secret ballot with members submitting their vote by writing it on a slip of paper and placing it in a cardboard ballot box. In this case, the supervising teacher performs the roles of Speaker and Clerk until the positions are filled by student members.

After the positions have been elected, the next item of business should be discussion and acceptance of the school parliament constitution and the supervising teacher may be required to prepare a draft constitution and explain how it would operate. Members could propose amendments or discuss areas that they aren’t sure about as part of this preliminary step.

It may be prudent that no further business is undertaken at the first meeting to allow members time to read and understand the constitution and also to meet with their representative groups (class or year) at least once.

A typical sitting day

The parliament determines its own schedule for sitting dates and times. The sitting agenda sets out the order for business items will be debated (Appendix 2). Sitting days are structured so that debate on bills is the first order of business after the opening and acceptance of minutes. Once this has been completed the next order of business is questions and reports. Debate on any topic can be adjourned to another sitting day if more time is needed to consider an issue, this should be noted in the minutes and remain an item on the agenda until a decision has been made. Schools can adjust the order of business to suit individual requirements.

Sitting procedures

The formal rules which govern the conduct of business in the parliament are known as standing orders, these are set out in Appendix 7. The members have the right to amend or change the standing orders which would be done through a majority vote in the school parliament.

Committees

Committees should be formed to help support the work of members in the parliament. All members who do not already have specific roles in the parliament can nominate to be on a committees to help implement the decisions of the parliament.

Committees could be established for the term of the school parliament, with the same members on each committee assisting a specific minister or the Leader of the Opposition. Alternatively a committee can be established for each planned activity and once that activity has been completed it ceases to operate.

Committees explore issues in greater detail outside of the parliament. This could include developing new bills to go before the parliament, investigating options for fundraising, holding meetings with students on specific projects to ensure student feedback is considered (for example what new sporting equipment students would like) and considering student participation in community events.

Amending the constitution

The members have the right to amend the constitution, add new information or remove information that is no longer relevant.

Changing the constitution is an important item of business and in Australia has to be done by referendum. The school could adopt this model which requires all students voting on any proposed change to the school parliament constitution. Alternatively, it can be done in the school parliament through a debate and vote. As the founding document of the school parliament any additions, deletions or changes to the constitution needs to be passed by a two thirds majority of the members (rather than a simple majority). The support teacher should play a role in providing advice on any impacts of changing the school parliament constitution and can also provide feedback to the parliament from the school principal and/or executive if it is relevant to the proposed change.

Resources

A number of school parliament resources have been attached as appendices. These include templates, examples and two chamber scripts. One script is a training script to provide students with a complete parliamentary procedure showing how the school parliament model operates and is based on a 30 minute sitting time (Appendix 8). The second script can be used on a regular basis to help the students with correct parliamentary procedure for the sittings of the school parliament (Appendix 9).