Taking a Closer Look at the Student Leader/Prefect selection process in High Schools

In this article, we look at how the concept of leadership can first be introduced to students in an academic environment through the student leader / prefect selection process.

A few weeks ago we received the news that a close family member had been appointed as a prefect (student leader) at his school for 2020. We reacted as most family members do – with pride in the fact that he had been recognised by his teachers as having leadership potential with immediate thoughts around how he might progress from school into other leadership roles. This event and our reaction to it got me to think more about the impact of the selection process of student leaders – to a developing young mind with leadership potential. For the remainder of this article I am going to refer to them as prefects as this appears to be the most common term.

I thought about it this way;

  1. Those who are selected as prefects could interpret the message behind their selection as  “you are leadership material”. On the surface, this message seems a very positive and encouraging one; but it gets more complex when considering what is required of the prefect role within a structured school environment. In many cases, this role aligns with a historically contextualised leadership style known as transactional leadership designed primarily to uphold the status quo of the hierarchy in place (Hine, 2014). In this style, as I understand it, the leader clarifies the boundaries of the subordinates and then corrects them or rewards them appropriately according to those boundaries. The leader, in the prefect leadership structure, is not the prefect. The leader is the collective group within the school hierarchy who have predefined the school rules. The prefects then function as the extra middleman to facilitate the correction or reward system in place for the subordinates who follow or do not follow the rules. They are also expected to uphold those rules in their own behaviour and be a leader by example. I recognise the rationale of this leadership style to the structure of the school environment and this observation is therefore not a criticism of the leadership style. It is more of a consideration of the young leader’s first-hand experience of a leadership role and the understanding of the concept of leadership that they get from this experience.
  2. Those who are not selected as prefects could understand or interpret that message as “you are not leadership material”. This might be communicated in more subtle and tactful ways such as “you are just not quite ready’ or “you would have been a prefect if we could have chosen more” but the underlying message is the same. The consideration here is also that the “not leadership” message also commonly relates mostly to a transactional leadership style which is recognised as requiring certain traits (Hoyt & Kennedy, 2008). I would like to build more on this understanding of leadership traits in my next article.

This understanding of leadership can be a narrow view for students with which to progress into their careers which might well require them to function as leaders within a different style.

My question is: Would it be helpful to students at this stage of their leadership development to understand that there are different types of leadership – and to place a foundation in their mindset at this significant time for them to develop from follower to leader more easily when they are ready?

As always, I open the door to you for comment as the intention of this article is more to observe and raise possible enquiry than to answer or critique. Such observations and enquiries can lead to small changes in how we think about long-time processes and how effective they might still be or not be for us. All thoughts are welcome, please send directly to me at sandy@enqpractice.com

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