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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 March 2006, 17:16 GMT
School where pupils select staff
By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education reporter

Casey says pupils know what makes a good lesson
Pupils at a school in east London are so involved in the running of their school, that they interview all prospective teachers - even the head.

Student panels were introduced at George Mitchell School in Leyton two and a half years ago in an attempt to give pupils "ownership" of their learning.

Now up to 20 of the secondary school's 45 teachers have been "grilled" by pupils before getting their jobs.

And it doesn't stop there.

We wouldn't think of having a staff interview without having a student panel
Helen Jeffrey, head teacher

The 70 pupils involved in the "Making Learning Better" (MLB) scheme regularly observe teachers' lessons and make suggestions about how classroom displays, teaching styles and discipline can be improved.

"We know how we want to be taught as pupils," says Casey, 12, a "lead consultant", or senior pupil adviser, for art.

"Teachers are only teaching, we're the ones being taught. Lessons have to be fun and every person has to learn something - the lesson has to have a purpose to it."

The MLB consultants at the school are clearly proud of their role and do not feel they are regarded by other pupils as "spods" or "swats".

Enkeleda and the high-rise flats near the school
Enkeleda says her peers are proud of what MLB pupils do

"They've seen how things have improved and so they probably respect us," says English consultant Enkeleda, 15, who joined the school after coming to England from Kosovo.

High-rise tower blocks

The MLB scheme is the brainchild of a formidable partnership between head teacher Helen Jeffery and her deputy.

Ms Jeffery was brought in as acting head in September 2003, charged with improving attainment at a school which has languished for years near the bottom of the local league tables.

Many of the pupils at George Mitchell come from an estate of high-rise tower blocks which dominates the vistas from the school.

Nearly half are eligible for free school meals, 69% do not speak English at home and 65% have special educational needs.

Matthew Savage and Helen Jeffery
Ms Jeffery and Mr Savage are determined to raise pupils' aspirations

As part of her drive to improve these pupils' opportunities, Ms Jeffery appointed the go-ahead, "one-to-watch" head of English, Matthew Savage, as assistant head teacher.

It was Mr Savage who laid down the foundations for the MLB programme by asking for pupils to get actively involved in improving lessons in his department - and now the scheme has been rolled out across all departments.

Ms Jeffery admits some teachers were sceptical at first and thought the idea rather "wacky" and "American".

She has also had head teachers from other schools express concern that her pupils are given so much power.

"But we wouldn't think of having a staff interview without having a student panel," she says.

'Student voice'

"The idea of having a 'student voice' is talked about by the Department for Education and Ofsted - it's part of the Every Child Matters agenda," says Mr Savage.

"But I think it's still very tokenistic, which is what I wanted to avoid."

With the scheme in place across the school, Ms Jeffery herself had to face a pupil selection panel when she applied for the headship on a permanent basis.

"I had the most gruelling of interviews by my student panel - questions like 'What skills can you bring to this school?' 'Why do you think you'll be a good head teacher?'

"I suppose I gave them the ammunition with which to fire me. It's ironic really."

Turned away by pupils

Ms Jeffery recalls how two candidates were invited for interview for a vacant post last summer.

By lunchtime, having interviewed and observed both, the MLB pupils decided only one should continue into the afternoon for interviews with the head and other teachers.

Sahar Ali
Sahar Ali says the pupils' frankness has helped her to develop as a teacher

"The students came to me and said they didn't think this person was suitable. It left me in a difficult position with just one candidate," says Ms Jeffery.

"But the kids were dead right - they were spot on. She's brilliant."

Newly-qualified English teacher Sahar Ali recalls how she was interviewed by pupils last year.

"I remember going into it thinking 'Oh it's just kids', but it was really hard actually," says Ms Ali.

"They asked me how I would make their lessons interesting, how I would cater for different learning styles and they gave me behaviour scenarios.

"I'd prepared for these questions - but for an adult audience, so I was trying to simplify the answers, but they didn't want simplistic child-like answers."

Ms Ali now faces regular observations from MLB pupils, but values their feedback.

"When you think you have 30 kids in a class all day, you're always being observed - so maybe it's radical that we're asking them their views, but it's not radical to be observed," she says.

"I appreciate when they're there now. They've always spotted something that I hadn't and I feel it makes my lessons better."

The school is already taking its scheme to other schools, with a steady stream of head teachers and pupils visiting George Mitchell to find out more.

The management also hopes to roll out a student disciplinary committee next year, where disruptive pupils will have to explain themselves directly to their peers.

How do you create a good school?
28 Jan 06 |  Education



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