Sixth-formers are training their teachers to be better form tutors. Janet Murray reports on a school that has discovered the value of listening to its 'customers'
Name Gravesend grammar school, Gravesend, Kent
School type 11-18 single-sex selective boys' school (open to girls in sixth form, but very few)
Number of students 968
Proportion of children eligible for free school meals 2.3 per cent
Percentage of A*-C at GCSE 98.5 per cent
While there are many worthy books on training teachers about pastoral matters, hands-on experience has long been viewed as the best way to develop skills in this area. But staff at a school in Kent have hit upon an effective in-house training plan - delivered by sixth-formers.
"The idea was actually borne out of frustration," says Chris Morgan, head of Year 11 at Gravesend grammar school, an 11-18 selective boys' school in Kent. "I was racking my brains for a solution to a problem with a form group. It just so happened that a sixth-former who'd been in a difficult lower-school form some years back was around at the time. 'Where did we go wrong?' I asked him. His views were very interesting and relevant. It made me think that we could learn a lot from listening to what the sixth-form students have to say."
Mr Morgan approached senior staff to suggest a training session, facilitated by sixth-formers, on the role of the form tutor. Keith Pilkington, assistant head, was keen to support the project. He says: "As teachers, we have a tendency to think we know it all, but we rarely ask our 'customers' what they want."
In total, 24 students were recruited; 12 to work with sixth-form tutors, the remainder with lower-school form tutors. The theme of the training session was communication and relationships. Students working with sixth-form tutors attended an hour-long training session, where senior staff explained what would be involved. At the actual staff training session, held last December, they each worked with two teachers, role-playing possible scenarios between a form tutor and a pupil - such as dealing with a student whose standard of work or behaviour had declined.
While one teacher worked with a student, the other observed. Feedback on the role-play was offered by the sixth-former and the observing teacher.
"It was great to know that teachers actually cared about what we thought," says Gurjit Singh Samra, a sixth-former. "The experience helped me build my confidence and get to know staff better. It was good to work as peers, rather than as teacher and student."
The group working with lower-school tutors spent their training brainstorming issues relating to the tutor role. Working in pairs, students prioritised one or two key issues and prepared a presentation for a small group of staff. The students were asked to devise a range of activities designed to stimulate discussion in their chosen area. Activities included tests, quizzes, mind-maps and interactive games.
"It was a very productive training session," says Liz McMahon, a newly-qualified English teacher and Year 8 tutor. "The sixth-formers I worked with handled it with great maturity. As an NQT it was particularly helpful to hear their views on what makes a good tutor."
Teachers and students recorded their findings on large posters, which were later displayed in the staffroom. A number of teachers expressed surprise at what they had learned about students' attitudes to bullying. "Behaviour that we'd perceive as bullying is not necessarily seen as bullying by the students and vice versa," says Mr Morgan.
One of the most significant outcomes of the training was improved relationships between staff and students. "It gave me the opportunity to see teachers as people," says George Nott, deputy head student. "Now teachers I'd never spoken to before say hello in the corridor or even stop to chat."
Joe Kitchingham, a Year 12 student, says the experience has made him more confident about approaching his teachers for help. "It definitely made me see some teachers in a different light."
The students provided useful input on how they felt tutor periods should be used. "Students did not like being given endless handouts or following rigid tutor programmes," says Mr Morgan. "They wanted much more opportunity for discussion about issues that affected them."
Another staff training session is planned for later this term where staff will consider how to implement change.
School governor Kim Kenward says: "It's good for the morale of the students to feel they have some input in their own education, and they can learn skills that will help them in the next stage of their life."
Mr Morgan is also keen for sixth-formers to become more involved in training younger pupils. He is planning a study skills conference for pupils in key stage 4, which will include four 30-minute slots delivered by sixth-formers.
He says: "There are many perceptive, intelligent young men in our sixth form. Involving them in their own and other students' learning demonstrates our confidence in them, which makes them feel valued. It's amazing what that can do for their confidence."