Listen to the back-seat kids

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Pupils are excelling at observing lessons and offering their teachers constructive criticism. Martin Whittaker reports

Name: George Mitchell School type: 11-16 comprehensive 49% of pupils eligible for free school meals; 66% with English as an additional language Results: Numbers gaining five or more GCSEs grades A*-C: 2002 2004 2005 20% 40% 34%

Casey Parram is enjoying his new leadership role at George Mitchell school.

He gets to observe lessons and give feedback to teachers, he takes part in leadership meetings and will have the chance to visit other schools to see best practice. All in all, not bad for a 12-year-old.

Two years ago the school in east London tried out a new initiative to give students a real voice. In what many would regard as a brave step, the school's leadership team has instituted the scheme - called Making Learning Better (MLB) - across all its departments.

Among other responsibilities, it gives selected students the chance to offer teachers constructive criticism on their performance in the classroom. Casey, who is in Year 8, has been appointed an MLB consultant, overseeing the scheme in the art department.

"I have to make sure that the teachers are making fun lessons, and make sure students are enjoying lessons, which is a main priority," he says.

"And I have to make sure everything is running smoothly with the MLB team."

He likes the responsibility - he is one of the youngest appointees and gets to rub shoulders with Year 10 and 11s. But how do the teachers take feedback from someone who, in an age of more traditional schooling, would barely be out of short trousers?

"They take it seriously," he says. "I once took a lesson observation and we didn't think the teacher was very good. We didn't really tell her that, but we told her how she could improve. And now most people actually like the teacher."

While reading this might well leave many staffroom cynics choking on their Hob Nobs, George Mitchell's headteacher Helen Jeffery insists the scheme, which also has students routinely attending staff meetings and training sessions, is contributing to the school's improvement.

"It's quite moving to see how responsible they are in the way they have picked this up, and how professional they are and how seriously they take it," she said.

George Mitchell is a small mixed comprehensive, with some 600 students aged 11-16 in Leyton. It has a very high multi-ethnic population - more than two-thirds of students have English as an additional language and 49 per cent are eligible for free school meals.

When Helen Jeffery became head in 2003, it had a poor reputation. "A lot of children came here because they couldn't get in anywhere else," she says.

"But this year we had a waiting list of 26 in Year 7. People come here now because they want to."

Within two years GCSE results saw a marked improvement. In 2002 only 20 per cent of students gained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C. In 2004 this had risen to 40 per cent, though this dipped back down to 34 per cent this summer.

Its last Ofsted inspection in March this year declared the school was improving, and praised its effective leadership. The school's work on giving the children a voice, which involves a quarter of its students, was judged excellent.

As well as a school council, George Mitchell has just started a student parliament, with pupils electing a boy and girl from each year group. The body tackles whole-school issues such as attendance or making the school secure, but it also aims to mirror local government and contribute to citizenship education.

Students also run their own well-established group Fighting Against Bullying (FAB), which supports and counsels victims, mediates between students and runs campaigns. The group is currently tackling the issue of homophobic bullying.

The school's next step was the idea of assistant head Matthew Savage. He joined as a 29-year-old head of English in 2003 and introduced Making English Better as a pilot initiative in his department. It was so successful that the head decided to extend it throughout the school.

There are now 80 students in the Making Learning Better group, chosen because they are passionate about their subject.

Students have been trained, introducing them to teaching and learning issues, such as the concepts of multiple intelligences, and briefing them on effective lesson observation.

Year 9 students have visited other schools with an LEA English adviser to look at teaching styles and feed back to the English department. They routinely attend staff training sessions, and have given their views on ability grouping and mixed-ability classes to a curriculum leadership meeting.

But how did the staff take it? Matthew Savage admits he encountered scepticism from some teachers and because of resistance it has taken longer than expected to implement. "You are dumped on as a teacher from all sorts of areas, but the one place you have autonomy and control is in your classroom," he says.

"The idea of opening up your classroom and a lot of students coming in and telling them how they can teach better was perceived in a threatening way."

But he believes the benefits are worth it. "One thing I do, and I think lots of staff are doing a lot more of, is that I will stop at the end of some of my lessons, and say 'Right - what do you think? How can we make that better?'

"To do that for the first time as an experienced teacher is incredibly scary. You think what was bad about my teaching today? What could we have done differently?

"But I think the more kids are given a voice, the more they treat that voice with respect."

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