Many state schools scrapped prefect systems years ago, claiming they were elitist and out-of-date. But the badge-bearers are returning with a new job description. Catherine Ormell reports.
This term Denefield School's 15-year-olds go back as a breed apart. Kitted-out in navy sweatshirts and striped ties, they have a new role and enhanced status - but no one has thought of a name for them yet. "It's a modern prefect system," says deputy head Peter Lewin, "but we wanted to avoid the P word because that has rather old-fashioned overtones."
They say someone suggested Senior Collegiate Under-Managers "but then we realised that amounted to SCUM". Another offering was Senior Students but again that had unfortunate initials.
Such hiccups apart, this grant-maintained technology college is hopeful its initiative will create a more responsible ethos among its senior pupils. For although its pastoral setting - where Reading's western suburbs run into green belt - suggests a natural state of harmony, Denefield, like many other schools, is preoccupied with finding new ways of encouraging good behaviour.
"We wanted to give Year 11 a stake in the school," says Lewin. "A lot of the younger years look up to them, perhaps more than the sixth form. Last year's lot wasn't as responsible as we would have liked and that led to a rather unpleasant atmosphere."
The school had sixth-form prefects nine years ago, but scrapped them because "they started creating more problems than they solved". Staff had lost interest in the scheme, and a few students took advantage of their power.
This time round the initiative has been tightly organised and given a higher profile. It's politically correct too - the whole of Year 11 is involved, not just a trusty elite. Many of the ideas came from the students themselves, including less-than-glamorous litter and toilet patrols. The final job description is still being drafted but will include core responsibilities like manning the reception desk, showing visitors around and organising meeting rooms.
Students will also be encouraged to take on different responsibilities according to their interests: some helping the lower groups with art and PE; others offering younger pupils a conciliation service. And the privileges which go with the job? A separate common room and an early lunch.
In all schools, behaviour and discipline are pre-occupations of the staffroom and Denefield is not alone in wanting to change the way children on the brink of adulthood are treated - and how they perceive themselves. The aspiration is commonplace: create good role models among the older pupils and improve the attitudes of the younger years. But Denefield is typical of only a handful of schools which are introducing prefect systems as a way of promoting responsible, adult behaviour. It is an approach which is not yet fashionable.
Many state schools ended their prefect systems decades ago, arguing the arrangement smacked of institutionalised bullying, apeing the public schools and separating the officers from the lower ranks. As the headteacher of one progressive comprehensive sniffed: "We're looking to the Millenium, not the 19th century for our ideas."
But while teachers are sometimes unenthusiastic, parents and pupils love the office and the badge. Peter Lewin received a clutch of letters from parents saying how excited their children were, and more than 30 students volunteered for conciliation training to help the younger pupils.
Other schools have found that presentable prefects, like a classy uniform, can be a strong selling point. Rugby School's appointment of its first head girl in its 428-year history prompted protests from a group of boys and pitched Louise Woolcock, 17, into the media spotlight. Her composure and confidence in handling the attention captivated potential parents and led to a surge of applications for the school's Pounds 12,270 a year places.
At Rydens School, a mixed comprehensive in Walton-on-Thames, prefects are a somewhat newer foundation, established in 1994. Rated in the top half of Surrey schools by the local authority, Rydens' intake swings socially between children whose parents work in the film industry and those whose are long-term unemployed. The school is traditional in awarding its red and grey prefects' ties to a select minority, just 36 out the 160 in Year 11. Less conventionally, perhaps, these are elected by their year and the staff.
Headteacher David Hebden, an ex-prefect himself, says: "Children can go through the whole educational experience without experiencing real responsibility. I think they thrive on it. I believe in training them properly and letting them get on with the job."
And so on a scaldingly hot day with the exam season over, the chosen few are being groomed for leadership by the Surrey Wing of the Air Training Corps. You might expect these crumpled, fringe-challenged children to baulk at the creaseless environment, the ornamental truncheon and parade timetable. But no, they are dead impressed.
Although they start the session showing all the vitality of day-old Weetabix and refuse to laugh at Squadron Leader Tony Osborne's jokes, they visibly straighten-up during the day, sticking their chins out as they grow in confidence.
Osborne is trying to steer them towards the right values for a modern prefect. "No it's not about power," he snaps when a pupil volunteers tha theory for the second time. Slowly, some key qualities emerge on paper, including: "matureity... to be synpathetic and relieble " (sic), if not necessarily good at spelling.
Some of these children are born into it. Matt Poulton, 15 and from an army family, wants to be a military policeman and this is useful experience. Plucking at his red prefect's tie, he explains: "It will give me advance knowledge of command."
Others admit to being poacher turned gamekeeper. Michael Richens, who wants to be an actor, says: "At first I was a bit embarrassed, but I realised I should be proud to be a prefect. I feel in charge and above peopleImy attitude's changed definitely. I wasn't exactly one of the tidiest people before and I wasn't very punctual, but now I am because I've got to set an example."
En masse, they are anxious to know how they can stop Year 10 climbing the tree near the Science Block and smuggling food out of the canteen. How to get their peers to tuck their shirts in, rather than just roll them up. Some of the girls complain it's difficult to get people of the same age to listen to them.
Sally Grant, also chair of the school council, wasn't pleased to find she'd been elected: "It isn't really a very rough school, but it can be really intimidating being a prefectIgangs of people intimidating you because they think you're spoilt and a straight A-student. What they don't realise is that you're a person underneath."
This plaintive concern is put a different way by Clive Watkins, headteacher of King James's, a former grammar in Huddersfield, which abandoned its prefect system 10 years ago: "Pupils who are prefects are put in a very strange position as regards their peer group," he says. "I don't think that's fair on them and puts them under unreasonable pressure. They have to exercise authority over people who are alongside them in other contexts, and that can get in the way of their general well-being and development."
Sittingbourne Community College in Kent has recognised this problem. It started a prefect system last year and has tried to defuse the them-and-us gap between prefects and the rest by giving non-prefects extra responsibility in the anti-bullying council, drama productions and generally showing people round. Sittingbourne is the product of two high schools which were merged last year. In 1994 its A to C grades at GCSE were a dismal 11 per cent and its constituency, according to the head is "rural and not salubrious".
The relentlessly cheerful headteacher, Alan Barham, explains: "One of our maxims is, 'you own your own behaviour' and students' participation in developing the new ethos of the school was crucial. We felt appointing prefects would raise their self-esteem and motivation."
He says another motive was to involve pupils more directly in the management of the school and help them feel a sense of belonging and responsibility. Here the staff treat the prefects like personal assistants. Duties include supervising the gate, the canteen and new pupils, as well as helping younger children with sport and performing arts.
The school appoints about a third of Year 11 pupils as prefects, giving them a badge, tie and distinctive burgundy pin-stripe shirt. Students write letters of application if they are interested and are given a fairly formal interview. Any rejects are carefully counselled. Some staff were initially sceptical but have been won over by the transformation of former rogues into pillars of responsibility. As Alan Barham explains: "It becomes a question of gaining recognition among peers by supporting the college rather than rubbishing it - which could so easily happen."
Just half a term after prefects were introduced, the atmosphere had visibly improved, according to Patsy Wisdom, English teacher and head of Year 11. "It gave the older students a lot of confidenceIprefects became quickly used to having their ideas listened to, so they would in fact volunteer things which they weren't necessarily asked to do. Last year's group was instrumental in setting up the college student council and persuading the local council to start a minibus service for young people in the evenings. They also compiled a page aimed at young people for The Kentish Gazette."
One boy particularly sticks in Patsy Wisdom's mind. "He always reminded me a bit of the Andrex puppy. He was a fairly large lad, he'd mean well but he'd go lolloping around and before you knew it some-thing would be broken, or a scuffle would develop. It was immaturity and high spirits, rather than deliberately malicious behaviour.
"Anyway he applied to be a prefect and I was doubtful about whether he'd make it or notIhe'd had a very chequered career but he was very helpful. We made him a prefect on probation with two others.
"The other two didn't make it - but this boy made himself indispensable. He just grew into the position, he took on a lot of responsibility with the younger students and gave up a lot of his time to organise activities for them.
"He had a lot of learning and growing up to do, but he did it. And by the end, everyone in the school - even the dinner ladies - agreed he was the outstanding prefect of his year."
THE PREFECT'S CONTRACT.
Earlsheaton High School in Kirklees (11 to 16) elects 30 prefects from Year 11. They have to sign a nine-point contract in front of witnesses and this is then kept in the deputy head's office. If any prefect reneges on the contract, their badge and office are taken away, but this has only happened to two pupils in the past four years. The contract says: I accept my badge as Earlsheaton High School prefect for this year. I agree to carry out the following duties and responsibilities.
* To maintain a high standard of behaviour and conduct and to wear my prefect's badge with pride.
* To help members of the teaching staff to perform their daily duties according to a planned rota.
* To take an active part in school affairs and lead others by example.
* To take an active part in school functions, helping and organising whenever I am asked.
* To represent the school at any public function whenever I am asked.
* To take an active part in all house activities, leading by example.
* To help new pupils in their first year, especially during their introduction to the school.
* To assist visitors to school at all times by being polite, friendly and courteous.
* To maintain a high standard of cleanliness and tidiness in the prefects' common room and throughout the school.
I have read and understood my Prefect's Contract and I agree to carry it out to the best of my abilities.
HOW OTHER SCHOOLS DO IT.
Highfield Junior School, a 7 to 11 school in Plymouth, Devon, set up a house system two years ago. It elects house captains and vice-captains from Year 6, with the full panoply of a democratic election: polling booths, manifestos, voting slips and canvassing. House captains organise fundraising events, mediate in behaviour disputes and have "quite a say" in the running of the school and development of policy.
Walton High School in Stafford for 11 to 18-year-olds, runs a student help service. They have 60 student helpers in Years 11, 12, and 13 trained in counselling skills who go into Years 7 and 8 tutor groups once a week to play games and teach basic listening and assertiveness skills and befriend younger pupils.
Hinchingbrooke School, a popular 11 to 18 mixed comprehensive in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, does not have prefects but has a system of service. There is a head girl and head boy, deputies and a house system. The sixth-formers can help with a range of tasks, including library duties and supporting tutor groups in Year 7 or paired reading with less able students. The school also pays them for helping at weddings and similar functions.
Haverstock School in north London, an 11 to 18 comprehensive, is trying to inculcate responsibility from the bottom up. It has set up a "buddy" system to support the new intake with 42 volunteers from Year 8. They wear badges saying "I'm a Year 7 Buddy" and receive a contract which tells them what to do. Year 10s are also trained to work on conflict resolution with Year 7s.
Burntwood School, an 11 to 18 girls' comprehensive in south London, highly praised by the National Commission on Education, has re-thought its sixth-form strategy in the face of competition from neighbouring tertiary colleges. Instead of trying to create a mini sixth-form college, the emphasis is now on involving older girls much more in the rest of the school, especially in the pastoral care of younger pupils. New positions for a head girl, deputies and prefects are seen as opportunities for leadership with senior girls assigned, say, to subject departments to help younger girls learn languages or to assist on day trips to France.