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The role of early student leadership – building skills for future impact

Written by: Rachel Iles
8 min read

As a teacher and international school leader, I have always been interested in early leadership opportunities in school to help develop students’ skill sets. This article explores experiences of building opportunities for leadership within school to increase student impact in the community.

A review of published literature relating to schools and higher education proposes a range of potential leadership models for student engagement. This posits leadership as a useful and emergent skill, which has a projected benefit for leadership roles within the workplace. Dugan (2006) references the social change model as promoting social responsibility and enhancing student self-awareness; this is contrasted by a transformational leadership approach, defined as relational, collective and purposeful (Ingleton, 2013).

Leadership purpose: Establishing your why

Crucial to our understanding of where to address our focus is establishing why we want students to engage in leadership activities. Thomson (2012) urges careful consideration by schools ‘… to not only think about the possible outcomes for students engaged in leadership activities but also to debate the kinds of emphases they would place on student leadership practices’.

In our setting, our purpose links with the school values, our character profile (which comprises courage, perseverance, creativity, curiosity, digital responsibility, compassion, collaboration and environmental integrity) and behaviour blueprint. Consequently, the opportunities we create for early leadership activities occupy a rich interstitial space between the implicit and explicit curriculum.

Over time, we have established a number of student roles across Years 3 to 6 to provide specific opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. Research by Veronesi and Gunderman (2012) suggests slightly different leadership outcomes when students are nominated versus self-election. In this cohort, we have incorporated roles that involve student choice, and combine both self- and peer-nomination. These are currently established via five routes:

  1. Volunteers: for organisational roles such as library assistants and events
  2. Application: students are invited to apply and interview for the roles as digital leaders, international ambassadors, student council and house and sport captains
  3. Class-elected leads: each class in Years 3 to 6 holds an in-class vote to select one boy and one girl from each class to stand as their class representatives
  4. Events: self- or teacher-elected volunteers for open days, school tours and media support at performances
  5. Service: in 2017, communal lunches were introduced to increase social opportunities for peers and siblings to meet up at lunchtimes; each Year 6 student participates in a rota to join our younger students, lunch-sitting as role models, companions and lunchtime ‘listening ears’.

All roles are reviewed and adapted each year based upon school needs and linked to the school development plan. For example, in 2017–18, my work with the student council featured charity donations (food bank and Dutch charity Edukans), exploring the impact of a new school building expansion on our shared campus play areas and consultation with our student supervisor team on playtime resources. While the projects were completed successfully, as the end of the term approached, the question of how to best hand over to the upcoming 2019–2020 student council was raised by the students themselves. Through guided discussion, it was agreed to extend the student council role into the first autumn half term to create a legacy for the outgoing council to take part in electing the incoming one. From 2019, the student council runs from January to January to secure a legacy and handover from the outgoing council.

This year, our PSHCE lead colleague and I have teamed up to work with the student groups. We adapted the application process around student feedback that the 2016–17 class representative role (which historically rotated per term) was ‘not enough work’. By this, we understood that jobs were not taking place frequently enough for students to feel a sufficient sense of accomplishment and responsibility.

In both the above examples, we see student engagement moving from a passive mode, i.e. students being recipients of community developments, into more active roles as contributors (Veronesi and Gunderman, 2012).

Knowledge acquisition in student leadership

Focusing on the student council and classroom representatives in particular, in relation to the question of which kinds of opportunities can we offer in our schools to develop capacity as people, it is helpful to consider how students gain knowledge about leadership. This includes a growing sense of purpose, through increasing awareness of their impact on their community contexts.

Our approach is not to overtly delineate what leadership looks like. It is a covert, collaborative process, in which each student has ownership over their contribution to the direction of the groups. On-boarding is an important aspect of the process, in which bringing different groups together within one school does not naturally engender instant cohesion.

Thus far, my observations indicate that learning to become a young leader is a non-linear journey. Adopting a cognitive apprenticeship model, I have observed some similarities to my dissertation research findings into knowledge acquisition in media education with students in the 14 to 15 age range (Iles, 2017). The implications are that students should work with ‘symbolic materials’ (Tyner, 1998) as guidance during our meetings and through their independent choices of task, as opposed to skills being bundled in a traditional apprenticeship model.

Expanding upon Pinker’s (1989, 1994) research on teaching and learning, Gee (1996) distinguishes two aspects of mastery in cognitive apprenticeship, namely:

  • acquisition: the unconscious acquisition by exposure to models, practise, etc.
  • learning: the conscious knowledge acquired through teaching and life experiences ‘that trigger conscious reflection’ (Gee, 1996, p. 174; Tyner, 1998).

At the January launch meeting (2019), expectations for the coming year were presented to the groups, with the focus on encouraging the development of people skills to provide real-life, meaningful and relevant tasks for students. Challenged with collating ideas for jobs within the community, students selected two initial choices connected to school-based services: firstly, to assist the concierge-grounds team and secondly, assisting the school office team. By exploring aspects of the jobs they may be involved in, such as auditing safety signage, repairing pathways, entrance points ‘meet and greet’ and ensuring that parent messages get to class teachers, students began to reflect on the work that supports our learning environments. Once the student leaders assume these and other roles in the coming term, they will gain experience that may ‘trigger conscious reflection’ around the people and systems involved in school, and thus learn about life beyond their classrooms.

Establishing routines

Younger students need clear guidance on self-organisation to begin with, yet quickly assimilate routines. The launch meeting conveyed the message: ‘Being a leader at JSL, we would like you to be responsible for your own time. To do your job, we will give you a set of duties and responsibilities that you are expected to organise yourselves.’

Students gained exposure to organisational models and planning practice by recording meeting dates into their class planners, iPad calendars and leadership journals. The meetings format is organised into a two-weekly meeting for student council and a monthly meeting for class representatives, whereby learning is guided and in context. By means of name stickers, leadership badges and group photos being displayed at school, the visibility and identity of the group is shared with the wider community. As students become familiar with meeting dates, badges, job sign-ups and journaling of key information such as peer feedback (e.g. class playground equipment survey, effectiveness of community lunchtimes), the learning undertaken ‘may not even be recognised as a teaching activity’ (Pea, 1989, p. 173; Bransford et al., 1995).

The leadership tasks that students undertake enable ownership, in order to develop ideas and ascertain further needs (supported by us), as student council and class representative leads. In the cognitive apprenticeship model, we represent those skilled and familiar with the discourse of student leadership at our school. We are able to respond to learner needs at any given time and give context-appropriate advice, through which ‘Specific teaching moments are uniquely tailored, flexible and interspersed throughout the apprenticeship model (…) as required.’ (Iles, 2017, p. 90)

Towards the future

In higher education, Trowler (2013) describes student engagement in leadership as having an impact on behavioural, cognitive and affective dimensions. In our international primary context, the tentative data points towards similar gains, demonstrated in the following examples:

Year 6 lunchtimes with younger students

There is evidence of embedding conceptual understanding of the character profile in student feedback:

  • It gives you a bit more patience. I want things to happen right now, but (…) you have to be more patient because they don’t understand things straight away.
  • It helps my perseverance because I often don’t talk to people I don’t know, so I try to learn their names and play with them.
  • It is helping me to be more responsible and have compassion to help others.
Year 4 project ideas

One student council member annotated journal feedback from peers on school improvements, including an upgrade request for some playground equipment. He used this information to draft a proposed timeline for work to be carried out around our campus expansion and Year 7 playtimes. This indicates learning and a level of reflection beyond the task itself, by taking a range of school factors into consideration (split playtimes, key events and staff roles).

Proactive engagement

The student council application process was pitched to students in assembly and resulted in 39 students in Years 3 and 4 signing up for interview. Students were invited to talk through their reasons for wanting to apply, their understanding of the student council role and, most revealingly, where they felt that the school and student involvement could be improved. The exuberance of their responses revealed strong feelings about a number of topics, including uninterrupted contact time with teachers, student respect for school resources, playground challenges and timetable suggestions to facilitate longer lesson times for certain subjects.


In conclusion, education has a significant role to play to equip students with the skills they need to become active, responsible and engaged citizens. In my experience and from the examples shared in this article, building opportunities for early leadership within schools unequivocally increases student impact in the community. Their active contribution leads to personal and social development, manifested by the students’ perceptions of self, their own abilities and curiosity about future opportunities.


Dugan, J. P. (2006) Involvement and leadership: A descriptive analysis of socially responsible leadership, Journal of College Student Development, 47(3), 335-43.

Gee JP (1996) in Tyner K (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Iles R (2017) Knowledge acquisition in film making processes: A study of a media arts residency at The British Film Institute. MA Dissertation, University College London, Institute of Education, London, UK.

Ingleton, T. (2013) College Student Leadership Development: Transformational Leadership as a Theoretical Foundation, International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences, 3(7), 219-29.

Pinker S (1989, 1994) in Tyner K (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Thomson P (2012) Understanding, evaluating and assessing what students learn from leadership activities: Student research in Woodlea Primary. Management in Education Vol. 26(3), 96–103.

Trowler V (2013) Leadership practices for student engagement in challenging conditions. Perspectives, Policy and Practice in Higher Education, Vol. 17 (3): 91-95. London: Routledge.

Tyner K (1998) Literacy in a Digital World: Teaching and Learning in the Age of Information. NJ: Erlbaum Associates. Ch.9, 173.

Veronesi M and Gunderman R (2012) The potential of student organizations for developing leadership: One school’s experience, Academic Medicine 87(2), 226–29.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas