© Obessu Facebook page

© Obessu Facebook page

Organising for democratic education

by Larissa Nenning and Ferre Windey



One student council, one student parliament, one campaign and one workshop at a time, school student unions are building a world in which young people engage with democratic citizenship every day.

School as the basis for democracy and citizenship

© OBESSU Facebook page

As the representative of school student unions in Europe, OBESSU believes that democratic school education is one of the most important bases for democratic citizenship. How we practice democracy and participation in schools mirrors society with social hierarchies often being reproduced. The more privileged and older people take decisions on behalf of the rest. The common belief that students are too young to make decisions holds up a democratic deficit. Young people’s capacities are being underestimated and their participation hindered, which contradicts education’s aim to educate young people on democracy and human rights. School student unions work hard to overcome barriers to active participation in the management of their education. They appear in many different forms, gathering individual school students or student councils and representing school students in general secondary education or secondary vocational education and training. Depending on the structure of the official student representative system, funding opportunities and national challenges, unions working styles and priorities differ. For example, the Flemish School Student Union offers an open platform for individual school students, while the Lithuanian School Student Union consists of formal representatives from local school student councils. What they have in common is that they fight for a school as a democratic space in which each student has equal value and an equal say. In other words, school students make up the biggest group in the school system and should thus be equally considered in decision making as teacher and other staff. School students claiming their voice within their school communities do not only make great changes for their community at the time: they are making long-lasting impacts on the education system and society overall. School democracy raises the feeling of ownership, which benefits the interest and engagement of students and improves the learning of school students significantly. In other words, school democracy improves student wellbeing and student performance.

How school student unions work

© OBESSU Facebook page

Active school student participation means to have school students involved in all decision making processes. On several levels, school student unions aim to represent the voice of school students in order to reach such an active participation. Guided by a strong belief in the right to self-representation, they work on empowering school students by organizing themselves to make active school student participation a reality. First of all, on the local level, school student unions support school students and school student councils to participate in the management of the school for example by organizing meetings where students can share experiences and discuss strategies. On the regional and national level, school student unions also have a coordinating role in school student participation. This includes bringing together regional branches to identify widely-shared problems in schools and form a coherent school student voice proposing concrete solutions. These are then taken to meetings with regional and national education and youth policy makers. Many school student unions go beyond merely discussing participation in school student councils, but also highlight social inequality within the school system and hold human rights workshops and campaigns on local and national level. On a European level, 31 school student unions from 24 countries secure the voices of thousands of students by coming together in OBESSU.


Examples: Unions in Action!

Activists in school student unions are fundamental for education to democratic citizenship and human rights. Some concrete examples of actions by our member organizations show how school student unions fight to advance active participation of school students in creative ways, empowering students to stand up and building an active society all the way: our member union SUS, from Slovakia, ran a human rights multiplier training in the framework of the OBESSU Seeds for Integration initiative on the inclusion of refugees and migrants in Slovak schools. Our Italian members RSM and UdS both host big summer camps each year full of non-formal discussions and events where school students from all over the country come together and discuss how to change the Italian education system for the better - on a camping site. In Austria, AKS offers anti-discrimination workshops for schools which aim to empower students to stand up against racism, homophobia, sexism and other forms of hate and discrimination they face in and outside schools. From formal parliaments to two week camps, school student unions are keen to bring students together and give them the information and tools to challenge the current situation. Other unions take local or national elections as opportunities to show what it means to practice democratic citizenship. In Iceland our member union SIF regularly organizes shadow elections in high schools. Shadow elections are a great way of non-formal learning on politics and society through the values of democratic citizenship. SLL, a Finnish school student union goes even further. They were recently mobilizing and encouraging school students to vote for the municipal elections and to run for an elected position. They supported the candidates with trainings on how to be a school students advocate in the elections and run a successful youth-ful campaign. One of their main campaigning tools is Snapchat, the photo-sharing app used by so many young people these days. Even more than facebook, this app is the ideal format to reach out to youngsters with snappy pictures and short statements. Far from just claiming political demands and pushing parties to react, school student unions mobilize young people to discuss education politics in their communities and make the changes they want to see.

© OBESSU Facebook page

Lastly, some unions take direct action to stand up for the rights of school students. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, school students of ASuBiH were campaigning in schools and on the streets against an education reform that increases segregation within the school system, separating school students with different cultural backgrounds. In Denmark, there have been several protests with thousands of school students since 2016 to reject government budget cuts on education. Similarly in Switzerland, a group of unions including our member USO was organizing protests against cuts. Whilst some campaigns are more successful and lead to policy changes, the experience of all campaigns improve school students’ feeling of worth and highlight the importance of unionism. 

© Provided by OBESSU

On the map, you can see all the countries in which OBESSU has at least one member organization that is working on citizenship education and human rights education. We are still trying to increase the membership to give even more school students a stronger voice. All over Europe, school students are organizing and claiming their democratic rights which have been too long ignored. Their fight for more accessible education, better learning conditions in schools, higher quality education in classrooms is crucial for building active democratic communities and young activists who stand up for human rights today and tomorrow.

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Partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth
c/o Council of Europe / Directorate of Democratic Citizenship and Participation Youth Department / F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex, France
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