Prefects have been part of the British school system for decades, but many Americans had not heard of the concept until the advent of the Harry Potter books. School prefects are somewhat similar to the American hall monitor; students who are basically an extension of the school administration are utilized to enforce school regulations. Prefects are usually chosen because of their maturity, leadership qualities and good behavior, so being chosen as a prefect, while it has its irritations, is considered an honor.
Students are often more at ease speaking to a fellow student about their problems than with a teacher or administrator. School prefects can serve as a liaison between students and teachers, helping both get their sides heard and understood, and speaking on behalf of students who are too shy, frightened or cynical to speak for themselves.
Prefects are often used to pass on information to the students, both formally and informally. Prefects may be the ones to announce changes in rules or exam times, or to pass on information to new students regarding regulations and procedures. Some schools ask prefects to read aloud announcements or daily inspirational readings. Prefects can even be sources of everyday information such as where a certain classroom or lab is, or how to change classes.
Some schools choose prefects to specialize in one duty over all others, such as sports. Prefects are often designated as captains of the school sports teams, and as such must organize the team members, equipment, practices and games. Schools also tag prefects to be the heads of academic teams, such as science, debate and math, or of cultural departments like speech and drama.
Often prefects are simply used as hall monitors. They ensure no one is in the hallway who doesn’t have legitimate business there, or are assigned to classroom or school doors to make sure no one leaves or enters without a valid reason. Prefects on door or hallway duty can also point lost students in the proper direction.
Perhaps the one duty prefects are most known and vilified for is that of police officer. Prefects can’t arrest anyone, of course, but they are counted on to enforce the school rules and to report infractions to teachers or administrators. Prefects are not merely snitches, recording all behavioral problems, but themselves are empowered to try to get students to follow the rules. Prefects are generally not allowed to use any kind of physical force, but can confront law-breaking students and issue ultimatums. If a school uses a point or demerit system to reward or punish students, prefects are often empowered to give or deduct points as they see fit.