Education: Perfecting the prefect's skills: Susan Elkin watches a group of uncertain schoolgirls learn how to assert themselves

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The Independent Online
FLIP CHARTS were out, envelopes were stuffed with Lego, straws, ping-pong balls and sticky tack, and bits of paper, name badges and scissors were ready. The scene was instantly recognisable as a management course.

There was, however, a big difference. This was not a course for teachers, local authority personnel or headteachers; it was a two-day training project for the 25 new prefects at Walderslade High School for Girls in Chatham, Kent.

The course members arrived, smart in their navy and white school uniform, and waited uncertainly. Vicki Masters, 15, remarked later: 'I was afraid that it would just be a load of lectures and really boring.'

Kay Scoresby, freelance consultant, and Margaret Heath, from the British Association of Commercial and Industrial Education, led activities aimed at making the prefects feel more at ease. They formed groups according to arbitrary criteria, such as what they had eaten for breakfast, and everyone had to say something positive about themselves and explain what they hoped to derive from the course.

At coffee time, the out-going prefects reviewed their year's experience with small groups of their successors: 'Don't they look big, compared with us?', muttered Katherine Jones, 15. Shoulders were unknotting, faces smiled and the room grew noisier. As Debbie Payne, 15, confidently asserted at the end of the second day, 'Scientists tell us that body language accounts for 60 per cent of communication.'

The girls were asked to share their fears and concerns, and then face them through discussions and role- playing. Several were apprehensive about the prospect of confronting miscreants of their own age, and were guided towards strategies, for example separating girls who were misbehaving. Others dreaded public speaking.

Good prefects must be attentive listeners. The girls worked in pairs on 'listening skills', one having been instructed not to listen to the other to show how annoying it can be. They practised giving instructions and presenting their thoughts and findings from the front of the room. 'Conciliation skills' were covered - but also assertiveness, being firm, unapologetic and saying 'no' unwaveringly when necessary. 'Assertiveness,' Margaret Heath explained, 'involves getting your own way without hurting anyone.'

The importance of team- work was stressed: 'Almost any problem is surmountable with the support of your team.' The girls proved it in groups of five, by designing games which bore a striking resemblance to Mousetrap - ramshackle arrangements of tunnels and mazes through which ping-pong balls had to be propelled. Afterwards each team presented their game to the wider group. They analysed the working methods of their particular team and the contributions, verbal and practical, of each person. They discussed how they had felt about working together.

On the second afternoon, the prefects prepared a presentation to show to a gathering of their parents, staff and school governors, invited for that evening, including demonstrations of some of the activities that they felt had equipped them with useful prefecting skills.

The girls were obviously enjoying themselves and had developed their self-confidence over the two days. 'I think I've lost my nervousness. I know I can talk to a whole hall full of people now,' said Tracey Box, 15.

At the end of the evening a well bonded team of poised young women entertained their guests with cheese, fruit juice and wine. Vicki Masters declared: 'It's given me the confidence to be myself and not to feel intimidated by other people.'