Alarm raised at pupils' power over appointment of teachers

Children increasingly allowed a say in choice of staff, report says
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Children as young as 12 are increasingly being given a say in the appointment of new teachers, in some cases vetoing their school's preferred candidate, a report reveals today.

One teacher told how a pupil marked down a candidate because he "looked like Humpty Dumpty", while applicants for another post were asked to sing their favourite song to pupils.

Schools are increasingly appointing pupils to interview panels or even forcing candidates to be questioned by a separate panel of children after formal assessment, says the report. In addition, pupils are being trained to observe lessons and report back to senior staff about teaching standards.

The report lists 200 cases where, it says, this extension of pupil power was abused. In one case, a senior secondary school teacher told researchers that "great weight" was being placed upon the opinion of pupil panels.

"A very strong candidate missed out because their student score was low, despite the head of department believing they were the best for the job," he told analysts compiling a report for the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, which opens its annual conference in Birmingham today.

In another case, a girl on an interview panel asked a potential appointee: "If I needed help after school, how would you provide it?" The first candidate said she would accept emails until 10pm. All subsequent candidates who failed to offer this facility were marked down by the girl.

In a third incident, a new teacher was interviewed for a full-time post at the school where she completed part of her training by a pupil she had reprimanded a few days earlier. "I felt this was unfair, as well as unsettling, when coming face to face with the student at the interview," said the candidate, who was not offered the job. Would-be staff at a middle school in Staffordshire were interviewed by a panel of 12-year-olds. One candidate confessed to being struck dumb by one of the questions and was then told by one of the children: "Don't worry – that was a hard question."

The practice of putting pupils on interview panels has grown following government support for a clause in the United Nations charter on children's rights, which states that there must be an assurance "to the child who is capable of determining his or her own views the right to express them freely". In all matters affecting the child, their views should be given the "due weight" relevant to their age and maturity.

Ministerial guidance to schools encourages headteachers to ensure that pupils have a voice in governance. However, the NASUWT – Britain's second-largest teaching union – argues that children's questions can be "inappropriate" and it does not believe they should sit on interview panels because they are not properly trained to do so.

In another example in the report, a student panel asked interviewees to sing their favourite song. "I declined because I wasn't being interviewed for a music position and felt the request to be humiliating," said a candidate who did not get the job.

"I still feel very strongly that, while student involvement can be very useful, the job is not to embarrass and humiliate visitors to the school."

The union is similarly sceptical about pupils observing lessons, saying the practice can "undermine, disempower and deprofessionalise teachers".

Earlier this week, John Rivers, a teacher in Kent, told the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference that one school in his county gave pupils iPhones with which to record their thoughts about lesson standards and text them to their headteacher. Today, NASUWT delegates will be urged to back industrial action against the extension of pupil power without consultation.

Headteachers, however, support such an extension. John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said schools were keen to involve pupils in identifying areas for improvement. He added: "This can be done through regular surveys of opinion, student councils, student interview panels and even lesson observations.

"It is particularly useful to have student involvement at interviews for teaching, student support and senior leadership posts. Candidates who cannot convince the students are unlikely to be very effective if appointed."