Pupils on the panel

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Is allowing students to interview their prospective teachers taking school democracy too far? Those who get the job don't think so

If you see a two-fingered sign at Sandringham school, it is bad news for the teachers, not the pupils. Everyone there is familiar with "five-finger feedback", a quick, easy and non-embarrassing way for a classroom full of students to give their marks out of five. It is an everyday happening, at any point in a lesson. In answer to a simple question - "Did you understand that?" - they simultaneously put their hands flat on the desk with their fingers extended - five if it couldn't have been clearer, going right down the scale to zero, showing complete bafflement. So two fingers means below par. It is quick, simple and, according to the school, pretty much anonymous.

This is the most basic aspect of a consultation policy that goes right the way through this 1,150-pupil comprehensive. Like many other places, Sandringham has a powerful student council, with the 12 members elected from the separate year group councils. But to make sure the same few students do not dominate, it also gathers regular pupil focus groups.

Elsewhere such groups have limited powers and often do little more than devise litter strategies or raise funds for charity. But at Sandringham the council plays an active part in running the school.

So when staff wanted views on the nature and quality of sixth-form teaching recently, they brought together vocational and academic, less and more able students to discuss the question in confidence.

This may seem daring. But it is not as brave as the decision to let the students interview prospective teachers. Pupils' views are now a routine consideration in the appointment process. Candidates visiting Sandringham will first give a trial lesson, and the children will later be asked what they thought. But at some point in the two-day process, they will also meet the students, some as young as 12, for an interview, head to head. There are so many candidates and so many interviews that the school council has to delegate the job to a series of ad hoc subcommittees - in true council style. Pretty much the whole staff has now been through the process.

"I don't think now we have any member of teaching staff who hasn't been involved in at least some sort of meeting with the school council," says deputy head Jan Palmer Sayer, and she includes herself. Mrs Palmer Sayer had to go through a full-scale grilling from a student panel, even though she was already employed at the school when she applied for the deputy's post.

Outside Sandringham, this form of student power is far from universally popular, but the school's pupils and teachers are united in believing it is the way forward. Not least because their collective judgment has proved reliable. "I remember one occasion when we didn't have a great deal of choice," explains Mrs Palmer Sayer. "We did appoint, even though the students were quite anti the candidate, saying 'they're not a Sandringham sort of person'. In the event it was a poor appointment and that person has now left.

"The students often ask questions such as, 'What's your favourite novel?', which they say can be quite revealing. Or, something I was asked, which could have been quite difficult for someone coming from outside, was 'Why do you think Sandringham gives an exclusion for chewing gum in school?' The answer is that we have a lot of carpets in the school and the rule sets a clear bottom line." The pupils, she says, knew very well why the rule was there, but wanted to see if candidates for the post understood the unusual level of agreement between staff and pupils.

"It is different. Because we're used to it here at Sandringham, I don't think we realise how bizarre it is," says Adam Shorey, a 15-year-old Year 11 pupil and council member. Adam says he has seen countless candidates in the past few terms, most recently one of Mrs Palmer Sayer's fellow deputies. "Quite a few of them are rather nervous," he says. "It's something they have never done before. I can definitely recommend it, though. It's so good to be able to have a say in which teachers you have.

If you get a wrong teacher it can put you off a subject completely."

It has certainly done Sandringham no harm: in 2001 the school was listed as one of the outstanding schools in the chief inspector's annual report. Five years earlier it had been identified as one of the most improved.

How, then, do the candidates react? "The ones we appoint always think it's a good idea, of course," says Mrs Palmer Sayer. "It's such an important part of what we do that if staff don't support it, they may simply not be the right people for this school."

Ones to watch

Sweyne Park school in Rayleigh, Essex School council has small budget to spend, and pays for any pupil vandalism Summerhill school, Suffolk Liberal pioneer forced Ofsted to listen to pupils' views Cotham school, Bristol Pupils chose the caterers Bernard Trafford Wolverhampton grammar's power-sharing headteacher

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