Be guided by pupils - they'll lift your game, expert says

24th April 2015 at 01:00
Student mentors can help NQTs' development, conference hears

Newly qualified teachers (NQTs) should have pupil mentors to help them through their first year in the job, a former director of the National College for School Leadership has said.

Students possess an insight that could be beneficial to new teachers, according to Maggie Farrar, who is now a consultant on school leadership.

But some experts have expressed reservations about whether pupils would have the skills and knowledge to provide effective support to new teachers.

Ms Farrar said she was aware of one school where staff in their NQT year were assigned two pupil mentors. "They bring a whole other perspective to that young teacher's development that we as adults would never bring," she said.

But Allan Foulds, headteacher of Cheltenham Bournside School and vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that although it was an idea worth exploring, he had "some qualms".

"It would need a great deal of thought for this to work. Effective mentoring, well-supported, with confidentiality and a real depth of understanding, requires great skill," he said.

"I don't want to be disparaging about young people but I'm not fully convinced they are sufficiently aware of the issues a newly qualified teacher has to get to grips with."

`It could be quite negative'

Louis Coiffait, chief executive of middle leaders' association NAHT Edge, said that having a student mentor could be "really powerful" in focusing a teacher's attention on pupils, but there were also risks involved.

"I can see some sensitivities, if you are a junior person in the organisation and your mentor is even more junior," he said. "If it isn't done correctly, it could be perceived as quite negative."

Bernadette Youens, deputy head of the school of education at the University of Nottingham, has carried out research into a project where Year 10 pupils mentored student teachers. She said that although pupils provided valuable insights into what made a good lesson, some teachers were apprehensive about the scheme.

"For some student teachers, if things weren't really going well, they weren't at the stage where they could listen to pupils," she said. "The idea has got a lot of mileage but it needs to be very carefully structured and tailored to individual teachers."

Speaking at the North Lanarkshire Learning Festival in Scotland, Ms Farrar also said that headteachers should make a point of listening to new teachers, who could give them a perspective they wouldn't get from more experienced colleagues.

"Sometimes we learn the most from the teachers who are newest to the school - those who are newly qualified," she said.

Ms Farrar told TES that "a fresh pair of eyes coming into your school" was a real asset. But that perspective was soon lost, she added, so headteachers should ask new recruits what they found most surprising or exciting about the school within a month of their arrival.

Mr Foulds said that paying attention to the views of new members of staff was "hugely positive".

"It is so clear when people are relatively new that they bring a fresh and incredibly valuable perspective," he said.

"There comes a point where they will become slightly more institutionalised - that is inevitable - but it is about bringing objective spectacles with them and a good school should tap into those insights."

`Insufficient insight'

Allan Foulds, the headteacher of Cheltenham Bournside School, says that although young people can be a valuable source of advice for new teachers, setting up formal mentoring relationships could be difficult.

"The best teachers will find ways of engaging with their students about their teaching and how well it is working and I'm an ardent supporter of that, but if mentoring is to be an in-depth, regular dialogue then I'm not sure young people have the experience and the skills to do it," he says.

"There is also the pedagogy and the way trainee teachers are developing their skills in the classroom, and the complexity of that is something students will not have sufficient insight into to be able to mentor."

Having student mentors could also highlight the distinction between NQTs and other members of staff, Mr Foulds says, which could adversely affect the relationships between teachers and pupils. "It could be quite tricky for both parties," he adds.

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