School councils are uniting pupils and teachers, helping them to decide what's really important, says Hannah Frankel.Interviews can be nerve-wracking enough without having to face a Dragons' Den-style panel of pupils. But involving pupils in the selection of staff is now almost standard practice, according to John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
It is all part of the drive towards a more prominent student voice: an umbrella term that encompasses everything from school councils to pupils observing lessons and helping to appoint teachers.
It is not without controversy though. Websites such as ratemyteachers.com have made teachers wary of inappropriate feedback, while Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, argues that too much student voice can undermine teachers' professional status.
John says the opposite is true. "Relating to young people is such an important part of the job, it seems entirely sensible that they should be involved in the interview process. It strengthens the position of a teacher or head if they know the pupils had a part to play in their appointment."
Paul Turner knows first hand how it feels. When he applied for the post of assistant headteacher at St Bartholomew's School in Newbury, Berkshire, last May, he taught a lesson before being interviewed by six pupils from the school council. The process was overseen by three adults who took notes on how well he interacted with the pupils but said nothing. The chairman of the panel then took their findings to the selection committee.
"It's one of many experiences on interview day," says Stuart Robinson, headteacher, "but if we're sitting on the fence about a candidate, pupil opinion can be the deciding factor."
Luckily for Paul, he passed the test, and is now an advocate for actively involving pupils' views. "The customer may not always be right, but they are always worth listening to," he says. "You can't fob kids off. If they like you, that's praise indeed. It's important the kids and I get on."
The impact of such initiatives has been given the thumbs up by a report released last month, co-authored by Geoff Whitty, director of the Institute of Education in London. He recommends that all secondaries in England should be required to provide a school council, while all primaries should be strongly advised to follow suit.
According to the report, 95 per cent of schools in England have introduced them anyway, although they are not always hugely effective. "I'm concerned that school councils should be as inclusive as possible as opposed to involving a small select group of keen pupils," Geoff told The TES Magazine. "They also need to be a part of school life, not just another add-on."
In this respect, you can't get much better than The George Mitchell Community School in Waltham Forest, east London. Its Making Learning Better scheme ensures that pupils' opinions are not just valued but essential to the school's teaching and learning. Pupils participate in regular lesson observations; teacher recruitment; staff meetings and training days, and borough-wide discussions about issues that affect schools in the area.
Together with the school council, the scheme means every aspect of school life is moulded by pupils for pupils, says Matthew Savage, deputy head. "It can be intimidating for staff at first, but it's naive to think that pupils are not forming judgments about their teachers and discussing them with friends and family anyway.
"It gives pupils more channels to have their say productively, which lessens the chance of them expressing their views in a negative way by bunking off school or misbehaving."
Sarah Creasey, assistant head at Preston Manor High School in Wembley, agrees. A team of trained pupils has been observing lessons at the school for the past two years and has developed teaching and learning strategies with teachers. In the English department, the focus was on the nature and frequency of questioning, with the results going back to teachers.
"The school council here has real muscle," says Sarah, referring to its pound;2,000 budget. "Pupils know the council is genuinely trying to work in partnership with teachers to make improvements that matter, as opposed to a place to moan or complain."
Real and lasting changes have also been made thanks to the school council at Wrockwardine Wood Arts College in Telford, Shropshire, where members have just been awarded The Princess of Wales Memorial Award, which recognises courage, compassion and selfless duties for others.
The council is split into five working groups, which represent everything from sport and leisure to safety and security at the school. One of the most notable improvements has been the school canteen, which was transformed from "chips and gravy slopped on a plate" to a pleasant food court where five bars provide healthy and Fairtrade food.
"The pupils can choose to get involved in an area that interests them," says Wendy Williams, assistant principal. "They are starting to realise that they can make a difference and that people will listen to them. If they don't like something, there are forums for them to campaign for change."
Such attitudes are embedded in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children's expressed opinions should be taken into account in any matter that affects them. "Students may have a different kind of expertise but it is an expertise none the less," says Matthew Savage. "They know what excites them about learning and what turns them off, so it is crucial we listen to them and act if we want to be successful teachers."
HOW THEY DO IT
Sydney Russell secondary in Barking and Dagenham, east London
Pupil voice has played a big part in the progression of this school, which is in a challenging area. Exam results have risen by 27 per cent over eight years, alongside other improvements.
As well as a traditional school council, it has set up a "student voice" email, which has been a great success. Every school computer allows pupils to email (anonymously or not) suggestions, requests, personal information, thanks or complaints to the senior management team, which gets passed on to the relevant teacher.
Pupils have sent about 1,000 emails since its introduction in 2005. The school uses one-to-one meetings and the daily bulletin or assemblies to report to pupils about what action is being taken.
Hampton Wick Infant and Nursery School, Richmond upon Thames
Hampton Wick set up its school council in 1999 - the first in the area for younger pupils.
The majority of Year 2s are members, which involves them going to weekly lunchtime meetings chaired by the head. They have helped write rules, designed a pupil survey and chosen equipment.
The school's buddying system was the brainchild of council members who wanted to make break times happier. Should a child need someone to play with, they go to the Friendship Stop where a pupil counsellor helps them find a buddy.
Reference Real decision making? School councils in action by Geoff Whitty and Emma Wisby. www.innovationunit.co.ukcontentview402806
A TOUCH OF CLASS
When pupil observations were piloted at Preston Manor High School in Wembley two years ago, Jo Whitehair, an English teacher, was wary. "I was initially concerned that the feedback would be inadequate or just negative," she says. "In fact, it turned out to be excellent."
Before the observation, Jo discussed with the observers what they would target. She wanted them to focus on her question skills: who was answering questions, the amount of time she gave pupils to answer and whether the questions were open or closed.
"I discovered I was answering the questions myself if no one was forthcoming," she says. "I was not waiting long enough for the answers and was asking quite elaborate things of them.
"For me, it was great to get that data and information from the pupils. And the observers got a lot out of it too. They received training and got to see just how much effort goes into lessons."
SETTING UP A SCHOOL COUNCIL
- Establish a clear rationale for involving pupil voice and evaluate its success regularly.
- Give the council proper time and space to work.
- Raise the profile and status of the council through involving senior teachers and granting it a small budget.
- Involve the council in all areas of school life, including teaching and learning and behaviour.
- Provide training to help members develop their skills.
- Prepare to act on pupils' advice.