Who’d have thought that old chestnut could still arouse strong feelings? I’m referring to the suggestion by Shaun Fenton, head of the independent Reigate Grammar School and current chair of HMC, that schools should involve students in the appointment of teachers.
Regular education tweeters, including Katharine Birbalsingh, Michaela Community School’s high-profile headteacher, and researchEd founder and government discipline tsar Tom Bennett, were swift to denounce the notion. The old battle lines, once drawn up, are familiar and unchanging.
The argument against runs that pupils are children, and can’t be trusted to make wise judgements (note the summer’s Tes piece about Ms Birbalsingh and Michaela “I don’t trust them – they’re kids”): they’ll simply vote for the teacher they like most. Moreover, it’s suggested, it’s not their place to choose who teaches them or how: it’s their job to be taught and get on with learning.
In the other corner stands the view that, when it comes to teaching, pupils don’t favour teachers who are a soft touch or try to be nice: surveys tend to consistently suggest that they dislike weakness and want “strict but kind” teachers who are in control, and know their stuff.
As a young head in the early 1990s, I adopted an open management style that embraced the views of both teachers and students. The term pupil voice hadn’t been coined then: pursuing action research in the field, I referred to participation, school democracy, engagement. My PhD thesis, completed in 1996, linked the growth of democratic practice to school improvement (value-added measures were in their infancy back then).
By the turn of the century, everyone was talking about pupil voice. I did some work with government on harnessing the energy of students as a powerful contributor (one of several) to school improvement, not least in the successful London Challenge.
It’s curious how the suggestion of involving pupils in teacher appointments still raises hackles. It’s the head’s job (not governors’) to appoint teachers, but it’s a foolish head who doesn’t listen to colleagues: senior leaders, the head of department/section, colleagues they’ll work with, even the first impression from the school receptionist.
Why not ask the kids too? I often used a student panel: possibly uncomfortable or unfamiliar for applicants, their response can be revealing. Why not, at the very least, ask the pupil guinea pigs in the essential trial lesson what they thought of it?
I never appointed without gaining consensus from those involved in the process: occasionally I failed to secure my favoured candidate, though in most cases the best fit was obvious and agreement easily reached. Within those rules of engagement I see little reason not to seek pupils’ views.
There’s a deeper justification for involving pupils. Education is about growth. Even in the toughest setting and strictest regime, schools don’t (I hope) deny their pupils any opportunity to take genuine responsibility before chucking them out into the grown-up world – and then expect them to function as effective adult citizens.
I always found that the pupils involved in teacher appointments were acutely aware of the depth and limits of their responsibility, painstaking in questioning and deeply thoughtful in analysis. It offered them valuable learning beyond the normal curriculum, and an insight into the nature of teaching and school management. The trust placed in them fed back into the wider student body, doing nothing but good.
Oh, and don’t worry about confidentiality. I’m sure I over-preached on that score: if any leak occurred, it wasn’t from the students.
By the way, Shaun Fenton’s suggestion was about wider student engagement: it was The Sunday Times that headlined giving pupils a role in appointing teachers. Have we now gone full-circle, so that empowered (rather than tokenistic) pupil voice is once more regarded as dangerous? My work on it all those years ago took me from lunatic fringe to fleeting guru-status: but maybe the current climate of control in education frowns on the concept of pupil empowerment.
If so, I’m once more on the wacky edge. That’s fine: it’s nice out there.