When head Peter Kent invited student input in staff interviews and lesson content he found he was tapping into a major resource
The interview was nearly complete. The candidate had interviewed well, even though he had seemed rather tense when he first arrived. We assumed that an interview with the head, deputy head and chair of governors would naturally make him nervous.
"Any questions that you would like to ask us?" I enquired, trying to sound as reassuring as possible. "No," he replied in relieved tones. "This interview has been so much easier than my last one with your Year 7 and 8 pupils."
Exchanges such as this have become increasingly common since 2001, when we first began to involve members of the school council in interviewing staff.
Rather than ask interviewees to teach a sample lesson, a process that we had found to be artificial and often misleading, applicants are asked to spend half an hour being interviewed by members of the school council, drawn from Years 7 to 13.
The panel is chaired on an alternating basis among the year groups. Each council member asks the candidate two questions and there is then an opportunity for the candidate to ask the students questions.
Students' questions are monitored by the deputy head to ensure suitability and to avoid duplication. Questions have been challenging and thoughtful: for example, Why would I enjoy being in your lessons? Would you be able to keep good discipline? I've always found your subject hard: how would you help me?
The chair of the panel then feeds back to members of the senior management team before they interview the candidate. While students only make a recommendation to the final interviewing panel, their comments have been extremely accurate, and in almost every case their nominee has been the person appointed.
Feedback from interviewees has been extremely positive, and many have commented that this stage of the interview process provides the clearest insight into the culture of the school. Over the past four years students have taken a role in interviews for nearly 40 teaching and non-teaching posts.
The involvement of students has encouraged the school to include them in a range of issues that student councils might not ordinarily be consulted on.
When the school began a project with the National College for School Leadership on reducing "in-school variation" (differences in performance between departments), we felt strongly that we should build on our early experiments in student democracy to give students a role in this important project.
Our model for reducing variation involved pairing groups of departments and asking them to share good practice. Students were asked to contribute by suggesting three things that each departmental pairing could learn from another.
Our early fears that students would provide only negative feedback proved to be groundless. Instead, they demonstrated a clear perception of the good practice in teaching and learning that each department could adopt from another.
For, example, three things they said that history could learn from geography were: "more practical work; more computer projects; and more project work and presentations".
Three things that geography could learn from history were: "more discussions; more case studies; and greater use of information videos".
Three things that science could learn from English were: "make use of drama and other creative activities; use of projects based around ICT; use the interactive whiteboard more imaginatively".
Three things that English could learn from science were: "develop projects based around practical activities; group investigations (we like doing the Fat Pigeon test in science); more opportunities for group discussion".
Each department was presented with these findings and asked to discuss them. Observations around the school have shown them to have a significant impact. I was both surprised and impressed to find our head of science concluding a strong lesson exploring the physical properties of outer space by asking the class to "write a poem about space".
Our early experiments suggest that there is a significant resource of constructive feedback from students that all of us in education need to tap into. The school is just starting a pilot study into how pupils can undertake lesson observations (using the head and deputy as guinea pigs), within which two students observe a lesson and then feed back to staff on what they have seen.
The focus will be on aspects of good practice within each lesson, with students asked to comment on teaching and learning methods that could be shared more widely within the school. Students are also asked to make tougher judgements, for example on whether the objective set at the start of the lesson has been fulfilled.
The more work that we do in this area, the clearer it is to us that the student voice is a major resource. Over the past 30 years central government has invested huge resources into measuring the differences between schools. It will soon pour hundreds of millions into a new programme of school improvement partners. However, at present, the education system is neglecting the best school improvement partners of all: the students.
If we spent just a fraction of our resources on improving the way in which we listen to students, the impact could be more profound than any school improvement project that we have yet seen.
Peter Kent is headteacher of Lawrence Sheriff school, Rugby. If your school has developed an innovative way of raising standards that could set the agenda for other schools and send a message to government, email jeremy.sutcliffe @tes.co.uk with a brief outline and say why you think it is effective