Harvey McGavin finds how consulting students can boost an ailing institution's reputation and exam results. It's a common cliche among educationists that a school's most important resource is its students. But how many bother to ask them what they think and what they want?
An ailing sixth-form centre in Staffordshire has turned itself into a model of good practice by consulting students and taking action on their views.
This injection of pupil power at the Aelfgar Centre in Rugeley has had a profound effect on its reputation and results. Since 1992 A-level point scores have doubled from 9.3 to 17.2 and the pass rate is up from 71 per cent to a respectable 91 per cent.
The Aelfgar Centre (named after Lady Godiva's son who was an important participant in English politics on the eve of the Norman conquest) serves two secondary schools in the former mining town of Rugeley. Its 200-plus pupils and most of the teachers come from Fair Oak and Hagley Park High Schools, about a mile down the road .
Its revitalisation has been a joint effort. Jay Trivedy and Peter Corke, the centre's new director and head of science at Hagley Park School respectively, have been the chief architects of change.
When funding for a Technical and Vocational Education Initiative project on learning styles dried up, they continued with their research and began to compile a questionnaire for students.
A 26-question "teaching and learning styles" survey of the centre's students brought some interesting findings.
Boys tended to see study as a means to an end, were more competitive and set more store by qualifications whereas girls were better organised, read more widely and preferred more open-ended tasks.
But there was a unanimous call from both sexes for greater discussion with teachers, in and outside the classroom. In response to the survey, Trivedy and Corke began a wholesale rethink of the way the centre was run.
Progress is now closely monitored and targets are set in consultation with students, who are encouraged to contribute to their reports. There are extra evenings and presentations for parents, the curriculum has been widened and modular exams have been introduced in maths, science and art.
Jay Trivedy believes the student survey and consequent changes started a process of classroom glasnost which has made students feel more involved and highly valued.
"The modular system coupled with the tutorial programme is establishing a more realistic confidence," he says. "They know where they are, they know what they have to do and they can see just what's required of them."
The key to the success is in the fortnightly tutorial system. "We are not just marking their work. We are trying to get a relationship going where they will feel free to discuss not only their work but the influences on their work. We don't want people just drifting through their two years without achieving something."
Many students from the town's two secondary schools, which share the running of the centre, used to move on to bigger colleges in Stafford and Lichfield or leave education altogether. But Aelfgar's relatively small size has helped to create a community spirit.
Peter Corke says its success is raising aspirations in the town. "Rugeley was losing some of its potential students. Now we want to make the centre the natural place for them to go." It seems to be working - student numbers have expanded from 168 in 1992 to 219 this year.
But with pupil power comes pupil responsibility and the willingness of staff at the centre to give students more of a say in their education has been central to its transformation.
Attendance at the student council, which arranges everything from social events to the tuck shop, has gone from a handful to a roomful. Extra-curricular activities, including a new girls' rugby team and a production of Grease, have quadrupled. An electronic "swipe card" system, designed by a former pupil with a degree in computing, has proved an efficient and timesaving method of registration.
The students' impressions of the centre are altogether positive. "Initially I didn't want to carry on with school," explain's Chris Bain, one of the editors on the newly-established magazine, Centre Pages. "I just wanted to start earning some money. But now I think university's a great idea."
He appreciates too the community feeling being generated at Aelfgar. "It makes you feel a lot more involved in your own education."
Co-editor Jane Dunton agrees. "We are being given the responsibility but if there is a problem, then we are given the support of the staff."
The authorities are equally pleased and the LEA is considering opening another joint sixth-form centre run along the same lines. "Two or three years ago the Aelfgar Centre was causing us some worry," admits Staffordshire's chief education officer, Philip Hunter. "It needed to make improvements. It has taken a lot of hard work but it looks as if they have got there."