Exclusive: 'Secret shopper’ pupils sent to ‘spy’ on teachers

School upsets staff by launching pupil 'secret shopper' initiative to address students' 'customer dissatisfaction'

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A school in the north-east of England has sparked controversy by using pupils as "secret shoppers" to anonymously observe lessons and provide feedback to the senior leadership team, Tes can reveal.

One teacher said the scheme was “outrageous” and amounted to children being “sent in to spy on us”.

However, the school’s headteacher said the initiative was being used to "celebrate success and promote sharing of good practice".

Longfield Academy, a secondary school in Darlington, County Durham, started using secret shoppers last half-term as part of teachers’ continuing professional development.

The scheme is modelled on the “mystery shopper” concept from the retail and hospitality sectors, where observers visit a shop or restaurant incognito to give feedback on its goods and customer service.

According to a slideshow presentation shown to teachers, which has been shared with Tes, the pupils chosen to be the "shoppers" are “briefed early in the half term” and give “feedback in the penultimate week to SLT”.

Anonymous feedback based on the secret shopping is then given to each of Longfield’s six faculties in the last week of term, which the school has dubbed “Customer Service Week”.

The slideshow says that planning time will be provided to teachers to “build on positives and address customer dissatisfaction”.

'It's absolutely outrageous'

Tes has spoken to two teachers who have been part of the Longfield scheme – both of whom asked to remain anonymous – who were highly critical of the idea.

The first teacher said that the scheme was launched without any consultation with staff. “I personally think it’s absolutely outrageous,” they said. “Basically, the kids were sent in to spy on us.”

“We don’t know what information was shared [with SLT], we’ll never know and I’m just not comfortable with that at all.”

The teacher also felt that the process undermined their authority. “We have to be seen as the authority in the classroom and we are giving the students the power to take that authority away from us,” they said.

A second teacher agreed that the system “definitely” undermined their authority, and also queried whether pupils were well placed to critique lessons.

“They’re not experts. The children cannot identify why you are doing what you are doing – they just don’t have the nous,” the teacher said. “It’s not their fault, they’re kids; that’s not their job.”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said the use of secret shoppers in schools was a “corrosive, nasty…thing to do”, which risked turning teaching into a “popularity contest”.

“It’s underhand, deceitful and it corrupts the proper order of relations in schools,” she added.

However, Longfield head Susan Johnson insisted teachers had nothing to fear from the scheme.

“Secret shopper is part of a wider whole-school strategy that aims to celebrate success and promote sharing of good practice,” she said.

“We are acutely aware that the pupils are our customers, and gathering pupil voice has always been important to us.

“However, in the past we have not always informed the pupils in advance that we would be asking them for their views. Trialling this strategy has enabled us to give the pupils time to consider what they would like their feedback to be.”

Ms Johnson said the students chosen to be secret shoppers were “proud to be asked to participate” and gave “constructive and thoughtful” feedback.

She added: “Although in its very early stages, staff feedback received so far has been positive as a great deal of the pupil feedback validated the success of the strategies that staff are already using.”

This is an edited article from the 11 August edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click hereThis week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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