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Putting pupils in charge

When students become peer educators, the benefits reach beyond the school, says Karen Gold

"Can we not go into the subject of boys' underwear please," interjects a firm voice, just as a gaggle of brainstorming poets begin to explore the rhyming potential of boxer shorts. The voice of authority, at once confidently restoring respectability, comes from 14-year-old pony-tailed Jaz, one of 17 Stoke Damerel Community College peer educator students in charge of this performance poetry workshop in a local primary school for 50 pupils from Years 5 and 6.

And they really are in charge. The peer educators, drawn from Years 7 to 9 - the youngest aged only 11 - began organising this workshop with their advanced skills citizenship teacher Catrina Garrett almost as soon as they had themselves completed a workshop run by professional poets. They will run afternoons like this in five local primary schools during this phase of the project, which ends this month; next summer they hope to put on a Plymouth-wide Poetry Slam (impromptu performance) drawing on the skills primary pupils have developed during their visits.

What do primary children need? They began by planning. The answers were fun, active learning, word association as a writing prompt, and chocolate.

Today they have arrived at Stoke Damerel equipped with all of these.

An hour of tongue twisters, name-games and solid poetry-writing in small groups crouched around large pieces of paper follows, using stimulus poems by Adrian Mitchell. Catrina is time keeper; primary staff observe only. The groups brainstorm, polish ("Try to think more deeply, don't use the first word you think of, and practise performing," says 14-year-old Rae) before Tony, also 14, claps his hands, and calls for "Quiet please", taking charge of the exuberant and sometimes touching performance.

Tony is an experienced peer educator: last year he was one of a number of Year 9s who taught citizenship during tutor group sessions to every new Year 7 pupil in the school. One subject was bullying: "We did a Barbie thing: I still get people coming up to me and calling me Ken. It's nice that they remember."

For Kayleigh, 14, the poetry workshop is her first peer education experience: she heard about it from Tony, writes poetry anyway and asked Catrina if she could join in. Her involvement was less upfront, more quietly encouraging: "I was a bit nervous. I thought the kids might just be sat there, listening to you and expecting you to do all the work. But they didn't; they contributed."

Stoke Damerel has a long experience with citizenship teaching, timetabling it with health and social education. Catrina's background is in drama teaching and the school has supported her initiatives, not only to set up active projects such as a youth parliament, proposals for pubic space art in Plymouth, a young people's website - but in particular to innovate with peer education. "Young people aren't often given the chance to be genuinely in control, or if they are it's sixth-formers teaching younger kids. But I use everyone from Year 7 up who wants to do it. It's about living and breathing citizenship; giving students confidence without arrogance and a sense of responsibility. So they say to each other 'Shape up team: we have to do this or nothing happens'."

The biggest experiment the team has to shape up for comes next month, when Stoke Damerel's contribution to a Plymouth-wide in-service day for secondary staff is to have its peer educating students running a training day for the city's teachers. It will not be an entirely new experience - last year they ran a compulsory twilight in-service session for all the teachers and support staff.

Teaching your own teachers was a mixed experience, says Alice, 14. They repeated ice-breaker games and freeze-frame activities they had used with Year 7s before launching into quite heated debates to define citizenship and place it within the subject-based curriculum. But whereas the school's youngest students had been quite reserved, some of the adults acted up. "We called them by their given names and some of them didn't like that. Some of them were using mobiles and chewing gum. One was messing around and I said 'Out of my class'. After that it was OK."

Staff were anxious at the prospect of being taught by their own students, despite strong backing for the session from the school's senior management team, says personnel officer and business studies teacher Karen Burn:"I was out of my comfort zone; I didn't like not being in control."

The impact was considerable, says design and technology teacher John Searle: "I thought they were very organised; they'd put a lot of time and preparation in. They would ask a question, we'd answer, and they'd come back with another one. They really pushed us. And afterwards it made me think about what I ask students to do."

The message that everyone is a non-passive, contributing member of the community is at the heart of this, says Catrina. She can see opportunities need extending: the current pattern of ad hoc invitations to students to participate does lead to some feeling left out. Her target for this year, having already specifically sought out refugee and asylum-seeker students to include, is to have 10 per cent of the school community as peer educators.

"It's true these students do have status and they do become somebody other students look up to and aspire to be. If this is to work you can't do everything for everyone. It's a big commitment and not everyone wants that.

You can give everyone the opportunity, but not everyone wants to take it."

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