Pupils deserve to be consulted

27th May 2005 at 01:00
The Children's Commission is leading moves to involve children in recruitment that directly affects them, writes Su Clark

Children interact with teachers every day, yet when one is appointed, how many pupils are consulted? In most cases the answer is none: they know little until they meet the new teacher in class.

The Children's Commission would like to see this changed. It reckons pupils' input in recruitment is crucial.

"I am aware that some children have been involved in recruitment of teachers in the past but I don't think this is widespread," says Kathleen Marshall, the Children's Commissioner for Scotland.

"Yet children are the recipients of the services. They can offer a unique insight on the candidate's ability to interact and work with children, which may not be accessible to a formal adult panel."

The commission is leading by example. When Ms Marshall was interviewed for the new post a year ago, children were part of the panel. They were involved when Stephen Bermingham was appointed as head of participation last September, and when the communications officer, Gordon Brown, was recruited in the spring.

"The level of involvement of children during interviews reflects the time the successful candidate will spend working with children," says Mr Bermingham, who joined the commission from the Edinburgh Youth Social Inclusion Partnership.

"We wouldn't make them sit through interviews for accountants, but where the job involves working with children, then children can be extensively involved in the selection process."

In May, the commission recruited two participation officers who had to be 16-21 years old. They will be required to communicate with young people, particularly those who are hard to reach, and be involved in developing the commission's participation strategy. "It is not an office-based post," says Mr Bermingham. "They have to be prepared to go out to young people and to work evenings and weekends in a bid to reach them."

The commission has been working closely with the Children's Parliament to find children to join its recruitment process. For the participation officer posts, six from the South Ayrshire Children's Parliament were invited to Edinburgh for two days for the interviews.

They were organised into a panel in one room, while another panel made up of the commission's chief executive, Liz Foster, Mr Bermingham, plus two young people (Stephenie George, from Foyer in Aberdeen, and Rajiv Joshi, from the Scottish Youth Parliament), sat in a separate room. All the candidates had to make presentations to both panels.

"I sat in with the children's panels but I wasn't there to influence them in any way," says Mr Brown. "I just sat at the back of the room with the teachers and listened. I was really impressed with the way the children handled each candidate."

It took him back to his own interview just a few weeks ago.

"When I walked into the room I didn't know what to expect," he recalls.

"But I was surprised when the chair of the panel stood up and asked me to take a seat. I felt it put us on a equal footing immediately."

The evening before the two days of interviews, the children, all aged about 10, were given training in how and what to ask the 12 candidates and being aware of issues such as equal opportunities and confidentiality. They were also shown the interview format developed by the commission. This involved an answer sheet with a number of fixed questions on which the commission required feedback from the children. Then there were questions the children decided on, which were more personal.

Each sheet had room for comments and space for stickers, provided by the commission, which summed up how the children felt about each candidate's answer (happy, confused or unhappy).

Mostly the children responded to the candidates who were funny, interesting and could talk to them as equals.

"It was good with the stickers," says Ciara Brady. "We could listen, then choose a sticker for each answer. But sometimes I couldn't understand what they meant, so I put down a confused sticker."

"I felt confident about asking questions," says Kathryn. "It is important that children are involved in the interviews because these adults will be working with children. If children think they are rubbish, then they shouldn't get the job."

When all the candidates had been seen, and photographed so that the children could remember them, the two panels met together. The children were asked to name their favourites. Fortunately they matched the adults'.

"So far there has always been a consensus over who is the best candidate, so we've been able to go with the children's choices," says Mr Bermingham.

"I suppose if there wasn't a consensus the adults would carry more influence, but that hasn't happened yet. We consider it essential that candidates demonstrate an ability to work closely with children."

It is a quintessential part of the commission's approach that children be involved in all parts of its work, but bringing them into the recruitment process hasn't been easy. It means the interviews have to be carefully structured, limiting flexibility. It can also have cost implications, such as hotel rooms and travel expenses. Schools would have to consider issues regarding confidentiality within the school and parent body. But these obstacles can be overcome.

"We have been experimenting with different ways of involving young people in recruitment, as have other children's agencies," says Ms Marshall. "We hope that together we can refine a system that will work effectively, which we can share with wider professional groups."

Once this is available, the momentum to involve children more in teachers'

recruitment may gain pace.

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