Teachers volunteer to have their lessons observed by inspectors aged as young as 11
Helen Wheeler seems remarkably relaxed and confident, given that there are two observers sitting at the back of her Year 7 algebra class.
Both are scribbling away intently on their clipboards, breaking off occasionally to watch closely as the enthusiastic maths teacher talks, listens to, and instructs her pupils.
These are inspectors, albeit with a difference: one, Samia Meah, is aged 18; the other, Mohammed Kasim, is only 11.
They are among 44 young people who have been conducting what is being billed as an alternative to Ofsted: a student-led inspection termed "Instead". In fact, staff at the school under the microscope, South Camden Community in north-west London, bridle at the word "inspection", preferring the somewhat less intimidating "student review".
The use of such reviews has been growing in recent years. In January, The TES reported that some pupils were receiving specialist training normally reserved for Ofsted inspectors. But the pupil-led inspection at South Camden is certainly one of the most comprehensive.
Over the past four days, 24 lessons have been observed by pupils from Year 7 upwards plus a handful of recent school-leavers. Other pupils have been offered the chance to air their views on the school in snap interviews at break-time with the inspection team, and to a video camera in a Big Brother-style "diary room". Eight workshops have also been held, in which pupils and staff discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the learning experience.
Instead - to suggest a contrast with Ofsted - was set up by an organisation called Edge Learner Forum, a group for 13- to 21-year-olds which brings together pupils from schools across London and other areas, and other young people, to discuss educational issues. Nine young people from the forum have joined 35 pupils from the school, from Year 7 upwards, to evaluate their teaching.
So how did Edge persuade the school, which had its last Ofsted only six months ago, to go with its plan? Staff and pupils agree that focusing on praise and constructive criticism was key, and made the inspection non- confrontational
Teachers volunteered to have their lessons observed; the one seen by The TES certainly appeared impressive. And while the reviewers' verdicts are discussed with teachers in face-to-face meetings, and the material collated into a report on the school, no teacher is identified. Pupils and teachers also spent months working together on the inspection framework, which resulted in around a third of teachers being observed.
Although findings from the review are yet to be presented, staff and reviewers appear united in their enthusiasm for it, with pupils contrasting it favourably with Ofsted. One aspect the young people are keen to stress is that they will work with teachers to help them make the school better, rather than follow Ofsted's example of pronouncing on a school's strengths and weaknesses before disappearing.
Some of the pupils involved feel strongly that they had very little influence on the "grown-up" inspection of their school last October.
Lily Jannat, 15, a Year 10 student, said pupils had been given forms to fill in with their views, but few had done so, partly because they had found the inspectors intimidating. "You are scared of them," she said. "They wear these big black suits, and do not say hello, or have a conversation. They ask you a specific question, and then they walk away."
Huda Albanda, 19, a recent school-leaver and member of Edge Learner Forum, who thought up the Instead concept, said: "Ofsted just brings fear." By contrast. the pupil-led inspections gave pupils ample chance to express their views, although they were encouraged to be constructive.
"We told them they couldn't just say `our school is rubbish'. You have to come up with ideas to improve it," said Simon Binns, 19, a student on the forum.
The reviewers were very supportive of their teachers. Simon said: "I did not get on with all my teachers in the past. I empathise a bit more with them now. I understand why some of them act the way they do in certain situations."
Shamima Akthar, 17, from Year 13, said: "One of the key things is to understand our teachers a bit better. They are not all robots; they are human beings."
However, some were critical of exam-led teaching. One said: "Teachers tell us all the time what we need to do to achieve a good grade. Some people feel they are treated as a number, not a person."
Huda said that when the reviewers asked pupils if they were "learning deeply", or simply being taught to pass exams, "everyone says they are learning to pass exams".
Rosemary Leeke, head of South Camden Community School, defended the Ofsted team. She said the inspectors had worked hard to reach what was an accurate view of the school, which they adjudged satisfactory. She also felt the Instead inspection had gone very well.
"If people are serious about taking `student voice' to the next level, this is very valuable," she said. "The students have got a lot out of it."
Already, another school has lined up to conduct the second Instead later this year, and those involved hope more will follow.
The Edge Learner Forum is run by Edge, an education charity www.edge.co.uk
SOUTH CAMDEN COMMUNITY SCHOOL
THE OFSTED EXPERIENCE:
Days spent on inspection: 2
Main inspection tools: School self-evaluation form; lesson observation; exam results.
Number of team members: 4
Typical comment on teaching quality: "Teachers have good relationships with students, who have positive attitudes to learning and respond well to effective teaching. However, the school's improvement work is still at an early stage and the quality of teaching is inconsistent across the school.
THE PUPIL INSPECTOR EXPERIENCE:
Days spent on inspection: 4
Main inspection tools: Lesson observations; workshops with teachers; interviews with pupils.
Number of team members: 44
Typical comment on teaching quality: "It was a really successful lesson. I liked the way (the teacher) invited the whole class to offer their ideas for a brainstorming session, which was a great way to get everyone involved."
Verdict: Yet to be confirmed.