Learning democracy on a small scale

Students have a say in how learning develops at their school: For the students at the IGS Buchholz in Lower Saxony, democratic structures are part of everyday school life. Whether it’s a new study time concept or the design of the group rooms - their voices in the student parliament or in the team of the student representatives carry weight and can make a difference.

Sandra Hermes
Patricia Haas
August 15, 2023

"What would make a good study hall better for you?" - "We would need more peace and quiet. Group work and individual work in the same room does not work. First, it’s important to learn how to study and have strategies to better manage your time. We..." In response to the brief question posed by Anke Ott, who is currently the acting head of teaching at the Integrated Comprehensive School Buchholz in der Nordheide (IGS Buchholz), numerous answers spontaneously come from the team of student representatives, who have also invited some of the class representatives to today's meeting.

It is just before the summer holidays, and while other students are already dreaming of faraway places, the team is discussing what needs to change in the near future so that study hall becomes more functional at their school. This time during the school day is something special at IGS Buchholz: It is designed to promote student independence with strategic methods. The focus here is on setting personal goals and reflecting on the students’ own learning process.

How best to implement this is a topic of discussion today. In this first brainstorming session, fifth graders express their opinions just as confidently as eighth or twelfth graders. "Every student has the same rights," says seventeen-year-old Malte, summing up the democratic school culture at IGS. Eleven-year-old Bruno thinks so, too. When asked why he is involved as a school representative, he explains: "It's important that everyone can voice their ideas so that we arrive at a solution that's good for everyone!" Eighteen-year-old Emmely agrees: "We are a big school, and yet everyone feels heard because the classes are represented by us class representatives."

Students in class at the IGS Buchholz
Students in class at the IGS Buchholz
Early practice: Participation in schools promotes communication, teamwork, and critical thinking.

Opportunities to participate on many levels

The IGS Buchholz in Lower Saxony is an integrated comprehensive school with 1,257 students from fifth grade to the German Abitur, divided into 49 classes. The special thing about the IGS Buchholz is the students’ active participation. "A high level of participation by all stakeholders has been part of the spirit of our school from the very beginning, as has open and constructive interaction within the school community. Parents, for example, were part of the planning group for the school’s foundation, and the students were also given a say and their own opportunities to shape the school from the very beginning. In addition, students from grade 5 onwards take part in internal training courses so that they can work with us to develop teaching and learning experience further," explains former principal Holger Blenck, who managed the school from its founding in 2010 until his retirement in 2023.

The school attaches great importance to involving students in decision-making processes and to listening to their opinions and ideas about what is happening in the school. An important instrument for students' participation is the student parliament. The student parliament offers students the opportunity to discuss their concerns and find solutions together. As a result, they are involved in shaping school life and can play an active role in molding their school. The school also officially anchors this in the three central concepts of its school program: “Diversity - Individualization - Democracy.”

"If you hold an office, you really get to participate here."

Quote fromAnke Ott, didactic director at the IGS Buchholz
Quote fromAnke Ott, didactic director at the IGS Buchholz

"Anchoring democratic structures on a small scale," says Anke Ott, is an important aim at her school, which was awarded the German School Award in 2022. The promotion of democracy takes place at the IGS through a range of participation opportunities and offices for students at all levels. "If you hold an office, you really get to participate here." These range from class and year representatives to the student council, the student representative team, and the school development group, in which teachers and parents are also represented.

The student council is the student parliament at the IGS Buchholz. Around 90 class representatives meet twice a year, or when important issues arise spontaneously. As a rule, votes are taken on topics related to school development. The team of five to six student representatives is also elected by this body. Seventeen-year-old Paul is one of them, and is now already one of the old hands. In the group of school representatives, which is meeting today to discuss the topic of study hall, the eleventh grader speaks matter-of-factly and formulates his arguments without much excitement. How about his election to the student representative team? "I've been involved as a class representative since the sixth grade and always wanted to run for office - but then hesitated. I think it was shyness." In the tenth grade, he finally gathered his courage, he says.

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Why does he want to be a student representative? He enjoys being involved and wants to make a difference at his school. In this position, he has also experienced being taken more seriously by teaching staff. It is a good feeling when your voice carries more weight and you can achieve something together, he says. Twelfth-grader Emmely emphasises that, as a class or student representative, you are not just speaking for yourself, but for a larger group. In this way, you are much more likely to be heard, she thinks.

Standing in front of the student parliament, speaking freely while campaigning for office with a short speech, and discussing matters in committees - all this, says German teacher Anke Ott, is "learning democracy in a protected space." The point is to participate and make a difference in small steps. "The same structures are then naturally transferable to structures we have in the civic space."

A teacher in front of her class
The involvement of students has a positive effect on the atmosphere in the school and strengthens the sense of community within the class.

The student parliament is an investment in the future of democracy and is a quite normal part of school life for the didactic director. She is therefore always surprised when she receives feedback from parents that not all schools involve their students in this way. After all, students who are involved in participatory processes at an early age learn democratic values such as freedom of expression, tolerance, and willingness to compromise earlier. They also develop important skills such as communication, teamwork, and critical thinking. In addition, early participation promotes a positive school climate and strengthens not only the sense of community, but also individual self-confidence. Students feel part of a larger community and actively contribute to school life. At IGS Buchholz, participation is part of everyday school life - in all areas. The use of the German School Award prize money of €30,000 was also decided democratically.

Prize money invested in the future of the school

"The school administration asked us to brainstorm ideas, and endless suggestions came in", Paul says. Together with the school management, the student representative team selected the best ideas and the final decision was made at a meeting of the school board. In this committee, school management and teachers are represented, as well as parents and students.

In addition to a school café, a sofa, a creative space, and a drone, the school community is now the proud owner of a 3D printer. The best thing, according to Paul, Emmely, Bruno, and the others, is the photovoltaic system. Although currently still in the planning stage, once it is up and running, the student council can help decide how to use the electricity savings for the benefit of the school. This means that future generations of students will also benefit from the prize money. The decision is thereby not only a lesson in democracy, but also in sustainability and altruism. This is especially true for the high school students who will be leaving school in a year or two and whose involvement now primarily benefits the lower and middle schools.

People of different genders and backgrounds in rows of seats, viewed from the side, vote on something with cards held high
The dossier of the topic


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A long journey to the new study hall concept

Likewise, Paul, Emmely, and Malte will not benefit at all from a new study hall concept themselves. Firstly, because this is only intended for fifth to eleventh grade students. Second, because democratic decision-making takes time, even at school. Nevertheless, the first step has been taken. The numerous ideas for the improvement of study hall were recorded in a mind map and later transferred by Anke Ott to a digital pinboard.

The topic of study hall still has a few feedback loops to go through. The IGS school development group will meet after the summer holidays. In addition to the students, parents and teachers will also be bringing their ideas to the table. Whether they will continue tweaking the new concept in a smaller working group or the larger school development group is still to be decided, says Ott. "Either way, there would be students in both groups," the didactic director emphasises. After all, he said, they are the ones it affects the most. At the end of the process, the result of which still has to be approved by the school board in the overall conference, there will finally be a revised study hall that embodies as many of the ideas submitted by all sides as possible.

Two young students discussing in class
Regardless of whether you are a class, year, or student representative, those who hold an office have an active say in everyday school life.

"We see ourselves as a school community"

And what if the student body is completely opposed to a topic? The decisions of the student parliament definitely do have sway, Paul thinks. However, a real collision of interests rarely occurs. The democratic structures at IGS Buchholz are designed for consensus. "Before it even comes to a vote in the overall conference," says the student representative, "we formulate our suggestions for improvement." Ott also confirms that suggestions or concepts with which the students do not agree are always worked on in advance so that in the end, everyone feels that their ideas have been considered. Truly democratic.

The teachers on the one hand and the students on the other seems like a faraway concept at IGS Buchholz. "We see ourselves as a school community," emphasises Ott, the didactic director. "We don't want to say that we are simply schooling children, where the students are only seen as objects. No; the students are equal. They have a voice. They see things at eye level with us." Especially when it comes to completely new topics, she always thinks about how to take the students along with her, says Ott. For example, with the planned redesign of the group rooms. "My aspiration is to ask: What ideas do you have? After all, you are the ones sitting there. Why don't you think the room is beautiful? What do we need to change? What would help you to have a good working atmosphere here?" Many new questions, to which Bruno, Paul, and the others surely have many answers. But for now, one thing is important, even for the most committed students: Summer holidays!

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