The super-keeners

28th September 2012 at 01:00
What sort of pupils give up their holidays to hone their leadership and management skills? Irena Barker finds out at an intensive course for prefects who take their roles very seriously. Photography Paul Floyd Blake

It is the summer holidays. Teenagers across the land are taking suspicious substances at music festivals, working in Topshop or hanging out in cemeteries drinking cider.

But at a private school in Yorkshire's picturesque Calder Valley something rather different is happening. Some of the keenest pupils in Britain have taken time out from their August break for a three-day boot camp - to learn how to be head boys and head girls.

By the end of the Senior Prefects' Conference, they will be able to rota a squad of prefects for patrol duty and confidently talk their way into a discount on a disco for the school prom. They will also know which way to pass the port and when it is appropriate to go to the toilet during a formal dinner. Important things like that.

Many would baulk at the intensive programme of potentially humiliating team-building exercises, Apprentice-esque challenges and public-speaking tasks. But the delegates here don't. They love it.

"When we say `Jump', they say `How high?' Then they say `Shall we jump again?'" explains tutor Sharon Stamp, as she attempts to describe the kind of student who attends.

TES was so intrigued by what might go into producing this elite cadre that it joined this year's event at Rishworth School, hosted by the Society of Heads group of independent schools.

We were also keen to meet the confident young people who would happily stay up into the early hours penning an oration for a public-speaking exercise, then leap up for an early-morning run the next day. All done with enthusiastic grins on their faces.

On arrival at Rishworth, the delegates - who are sent to the conference by their headteachers at a cost of pound;210 each - can be found absorbed in a listening skills exercise. Working in pairs, one prefect describes a strange geometric shape, which their partner then has to draw without looking at the original. The main hall echoes with excited talk of right angles, circles and straight lines "pointing north-north-west".

Next is an event-management task, where the prefects are asked to organise a school party. Potential disasters described on slips of paper - such as a power cut - arrive on their tables to throw a spanner in the works.

One ambitious group opts for a 900-pupil event with pound;30 tickets, with equally ambitious predicted profits of pound;9,000.

Elsewhere a group of boys is making the case for a pound;100 budget for flowers, while an elegant girl in a quilted jacket and pearl earrings wants to spend pound;400.

"Don't mix party nights with fundraising nights," advises David Curran, a course tutor and a former head boy himself. "They are two different beasts and it's not a good idea to mix them. Use your personal contacts to bring down the costs. If you're cheeky but polite, you'll be amazed what you can do."

Next on the agenda - without stopping for breath - is the altogether more serious issue of child protection. Furrowed brows abound. Delegates are asked to ponder what they would do if they discovered that a young teacher was going out with a pupil. And what would they do if they found themselves befriended by a lonely Year 7 who kept hanging on their coat- tails?

"Hide from them in the sixth-form centre," says one lad. "It's not natural to be followed around."

"But it is natural," asserts the tutor. "You are wonderful. "

"Yeah, well, that's true," replies the boy, clearly warming to the popularity his head-boy status might bring.

And then we gallop on to a session where prefects are faced with tricky real-life problems - such as pupils refusing to clean up litter around the tuck shop or a flood caused by a blocked sink. One boy suggests getting a PE teacher to help: "In our school, I don't know if it's true of most schools, but the rugby teachers aren't especially bright, but they are strong," he says with a chortle. There are giggles of recognition.

The delegates approach all these tasks with earnestness and joy. No one sighs at the embarrassing team-building exercises. At the end of a long day, they are as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as at the beginning. The tutors barely need to speak to command silence. A simple raised hand is enough and 65 pairs of eager eyes turn in their direction.

But what do the delegates think of their new role? And why are they motivated to do it? It can't be worth all the stress just for your Ucas personal statement, surely?

"I always looked up to the prefects and I like the idea of kids looking up to me," says one head-boy-in-waiting from a private school in the Midlands. "There is an element of power. The prefect's word isn't law, but you do respect them," he continues, bemoaning the fact that his school no longer allows prefects to make naughty pupils face the wall as a punishment.

Then there are the honours boards. "I do like the idea of having my name in gold leaf," he says. The other prefects nod.

Birds of a feather

Despite the attractions of gold and power, though, the prefects seem motivated largely by their strong desire to be active and involved in everything. One head boy claims he needs the stress of the role to focus his mind. "I like the extra responsibility," he explains. "The less time I have, the better I focus and knuckle down."

And they are all eager to sing the praises of the conference. "It's been great meeting people with the same mindset -everybody is so motivated, we've been bonding with no effort," enthuses one boy.

After less than 24 hours together many of the delegates look like they have made friends for life. It is not dissimilar to university freshers' week - only with much more hard work.

But why do people this motivated need training for their role? They all appear so talented it hardly seems necessary.

"The kudos of the role is amazing, but head boy or head girl has become a real management position," says Stamp. "It's very demanding."

Course director Claire Rhodes, a teacher at Rishworth, adds: "It's a unique opportunity for them to prepare themselves for their year in office and to liaise with similar individuals and share their experiences. They get to meet prefects who have already done the role and to learn from them. They are also making contacts for life and doing the networking that is vital for the role."

This is not some elitist club. More and more state schools are adopting traditional systems of prefects and house captains. Academies keen to enhance their status by adopting independent school-style features have been at the forefront of this.

"The prefect or house captain system is a great way for schools to provide pupils with the opportunity to develop leadership skills, whether they are in the state or independent sector," says trainer Andrew Nunn, who has been instructing prefects for years as deputy head of the Duke of York's Royal Military School, an academy in Dover.

But he has a warning. "My philosophy is that you don't just give a senior pupil a badge and say `Go away and do your job.' It is really something to be aspired to. There's a job description and they apply."

So, the conference has some serious aims, and the prefects take it seriously. But what do these teenagers do to unwind?

As the second day of the programme draws to a close, tutors have organised a wine-tasting competition based on Call My Bluff in which students have to pick the real description for several wines. Oddly, they taste the wines silently, showing the same level of commitment to getting the right answer as they seemingly do to everything else. Most adults would chat their way through it, but the prefects focus hard, thoroughly sniffing and tasting in search of grape, origin and vintage.

And then, in preparation for those formal dinners that are the responsibility of senior prefects at many schools, comes the etiquette session, in which they learn such essentials as the direction the port should travel in. None of the impeccably behaved prefects seem in need of reminders about manners, but they listen intently to the tutors, as they do for every task.

There can be little doubt that these young people are going to go a long way. But only once they have sorted out those slovenly Year 7s.

I looked up to the prefects and I like the idea of kids looking up to me. There's an element of power.

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