The Issue - Pupil panels

25th June 2010 at 01:00
Involving children in teacher appointments can be a force for good, but candidates shouldn't feel they are being ridiculed. How should they handle the process?

A demeaning or embarrassing interview at the hands of a pupil panel is not the best way to start a new job. But it happens all too often, according to the NASUWT teaching union.

It has published a 100-page dossier that details a series of cases in which candidates are mocked or humiliated by their young interrogators. Of course, not all of this type of interviews turn so sour, but candidates are well advised to know their rights.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, says many candidates have not been told beforehand that they are to face a pupil panel. She suggests that interviewees ask in advance. If candidates are unhappy with the idea, they can withdraw their application.

"Candidates should ask themselves: what does this say about the way the school views the power balance between teachers and pupils?" she says. "At any point in the process, they are free to withdraw."

But with teachers reluctant to move jobs during a recession, and pupil panels becoming increasingly prevalent, those who choose to step down may be seriously limiting their career options. Being asked to sing in an interview or being told you look like Humpty Dumpty - both of which were documented in the NASUWT's dossier - are the price candidates may end up having to pay.

In a situation like this, common sense needs to prevail. It is perfectly acceptable to refuse to comply with pupil demands. A simple, "I'm not going to answer that - it's inappropriate," should do it. Then mention the incident to the headteacher, so they are aware of the issue.

The last Labour government promoted pupil voice as a way of getting children to play a part in their own learning, but left it up to schools to decide how that should be done. Many started by involving pupils in the appointment of a new headteacher in the 1990s, Ms Keates says.

Now classroom teachers are frequently held to account by pupils. And from September, under the Education and Skills Act 2008, all schools will have a legal duty to consult pupils over major changes to school policies.

Fergal Roche, a former head and managing director of The Key, a support service for school leaders, says extending and encouraging pupil voice is part of building a healthy community, so it would be "strange" not to involve pupils in the appointment process.

But schools need to be "sensible", he adds. "I would not expect a seven- year-old to sit on a formal interview panel, for instance. There are plenty of other ways to involve them."

Mr Roche believes that the way an appointment process is put together says a lot about any given school's values.

"Any candidates who find themselves at odds with part of the process would be wise to consider carefully whether they will be a good fit with the school, should they be appointed," he concludes.

But with the right training and information about how the process will work, pupil panels can be a great force for good, insists John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

"Pupils are very astute, sometimes surprisingly so," he says. "Candidates who can't convince the pupils are unlikely to be very effective if appointed."

It is up to each individual school to decide how much weight a pupil panel's opinion is given. It many cases, it may tip the balance if staff are unsure about which candidate to opt for.

It is good practice for unsuccessful candidates to ask for feedback, which may reveal whether the decision was teacher or pupil-led, adds Ms Keates. If candidates think the outcome is unfair, they should contact their union.

The format of pupil panels is also fluid: some will only involve the school council; others will have an additional adult present. Each element offers a clue about the school's ethos.

If that points towards a poor fit, it may be best to hold out and look for another school. Feeling like a square peg in a round hole is rarely fulfilling.

WHAT TO DO

  • Find out beforehand if you will be interviewed by a pupil panel.
  • If you are unhappy with the idea, or of how it works in practice, consider withdrawing from the interview process.
  • Remember that pupils may also be asked for their opinion if they take you on a tour of the school or are taught a class by you.

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