Excuse me - but are you good enough to teach us?

Teachers applying for a post at Hull's Hessle High School face an unusual hurdle: the first stage of the interview process is carried out by their potential students.
Click to follow
The three teachers are ushered into the room. They have toured the school, met some of their potential colleagues, and now they are facing the day's first interview panel - two 13-year-olds and a couple of sixth- formers.

It is a normal part of the selection process for teachers at Hessle High School near Hull, an 11-18 state comprehensive that has acknowledged the expertise of pupils in spotting teachers' strengths and weaknesses. After the 45-minute interview, the pupils go to find headteacher David Rose, who is waiting to gather their impressions. Later in the afternoon, Rose will pass on the pupils' comments to the governors and other teachers before they conduct formal interviews and make final decisions.

Hessle High, the fastest-growing school in the East Riding of Yorkshire, has used student panels for every appointment since March 1997 - about 16 jobs. "On every occasion, the governors have chosen the same candidate as the students, apart from once when the student panel was undecided," says Rose, described as "charismatic" in the school's Ofsted report. "The governors have almost become superfluous!"

The first teacher to face a student interview panel was Jean Hertrich, one of two deputy heads. "It's a healthy sign if a school will let applicants talk directly to students," says Hertrich. "It seemed very appropriate that children, as the receivers, the `customers', should have that input. They were very good interviewers."

She dismisses notions of tokenism or trendiness. "I didn't feel that way, as someone who didn't know the school. I took that interview as seriously as the others. And you could tell that the governors had listened to what the students had said."

One of the interviewers, Lisa Rogers, 18, who "chaired" three student panels last year, agrees. "When we came to give our opinions to Mr Rose, I didn't think they would take much notice - that it would be a superficial thing. But he was actually writing things down, he asked us who we would give the job to. In the end he said: `We were thinking that, too.' It's not tokenism."

Lauren Devaney, 15, found the process strange at first. "It's weird sitting opposite someone who could be shouting at you in a few months' time, interviewing her." Like all the young recruitment consultants, she is an elected member of the school council. The youngest interviewers are 13. On selection days, each panel of two younger pupils and two sixth-formers is briefed by a teacher before they grill three or four candidates at a time. They might kick off with a general question about why the candidate went in to teaching.

"Miss Mackintosh gave us some pointers," Lauren explains. "But we wrote the questions ourselves," Sheryl Grant, 14, stresses. "We wrote some quite hard questions, to see if they had done any research and if they were interested in the school itself, not just getting the money."

"We gave them a role-playing situation," says Craig Watkin, 14. "If a pupil was being disruptive, what would they do?" Steven Bywater, 15, says: "You can tell by the questions they ask us, whether they are interested in the school, and interested in you." Lisa admitted to recommending an art teacher who suggested a trip to Barcelona - "We all thought that sounded good" - but denied that such blandishments cut any ice. "I don't think we are that shallow. We all know we are here for an education.

"A lot of them were dropping things in to impress us - they're dead trendy, they like good music - but we can all spot it: we're not children now."

Sheryl agrees. "They might be nice, but if they are not going to teach us anything, there's no point." The art teacher got the job and has started arranging the Barcelona trip.

Lisa feels the experience helped her when the roles were reversed again at university admissions time. "I remembered little things such as eye contact - you don't realise the importance until you have actually been an interviewer yourself."

Rose introduced the panels as a way of giving pupils responsibility. "But it also gives candidates an idea of the sort of students they are going to meet. They need to know what the school is about, what the ethos is.

"It's not incredible that we agree; what's surprising is how perceptive the pupils are. I thought they would have prejudices we would have to ignore, but it's not turned out to be the case."

The process is carefully planned, says Hertrich: "It's all about how you brief your students and what they are brought up to expect within the ethos of the school." Some student involvement in teacher selection is now the norm. Pupils often show candidates around the school, or receive the same lesson four times from a succession of candidates, but few schools have student interview panels. Rose says there have been no complaints from candidates, successful or not.

The school's National Union of Teachers representative, Linda Fisher, supports the practice and has also had no complaints.

One unsuccessful candidate for the deputy head post says: "I was worried that the subjective views of pupils would be used against me. But on reflection, I realised it could be quite a positive part of the procedure." He later persuaded his own head to introduce student interview panels.

The chair of governors, Phil Davison, believes pupils are old enough to assess character. "It is valuable for the pupils and certainly valuable for us, as they face more teachers than we as governors do." Professor Peter Herriot, associate director of the Institute for Employment Studies at Sussex University, says that recruitment decisions benefit from a wide range of evidence. "What the pupils are doing would be likely to give good evidence.

"The pupils are coming to the same conclusions as the governors. However, we don't know whether these are the right conclusions. It doesn't mean that selection is child's play, it merely means that they are probably using the same criteria. The real test is performance on the job."

Hessle's unusual selection procedure has not harmed the school. Its results are improving and it has won a string of awards, including the Cabinet Office's Charter Mark for excellence in the public sector. Pupils do not have the power of veto, Rose emphasises. "The final decision is with the governors. It's not that the students are actually choosing the staff, all they are doing is feeding back their views to the interview panel. We need to clearly establish the boundaries."

And would this reporter pass a job interview with Hessle's student panel? They consider. "Maybe!"