The school where pupils rate their teachers

Pupils at a London school are advising on teaching technique and grilling job applicants. What's more, they're achieving massively improved grades at GCSE
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The Independent Online

There is nothing on the outside of George Mitchell School, in east London, to show that it is anything but the usual kind of old London secondary school, built to last but badly in need of a coat of paint.

Inside, however, education is being rapidly propelled into the 21st century, and the people who are doing it are the pupils.

At George Mitchell, pupils have been given "ownership" of their schooling. They observe and criticise lessons, make suggestions to teachers about how they could teach better, and interview candidates for teaching posts. The scheme has gone so well that the school is now giving students even more responsibility by abandoning traditional homework in favour of optional out-of-class work which students can decide whether they will do or not.

"There is a lot of lip service given to the idea of student involvement in education," says head teacher Helen Jeffery, "but I had never seen pupils given an honest say. We wanted our students to have this.

"And the feedback we've had from them has been amazing. My experience with children told me they would rise to the occasion and there has not been one single instance where children have behaved maliciously or malevolently."

George Mitchell is an 11-to-16 school serving a multi-ethnic community in a poor part of Leyton, east London. Sixty-nine per cent of pupils don't speak English at home, and nearly half are on free school meals.

The idea for student involvement started two years ago when Helen Jeffery came in to take over what was then an ailing school and appointed a go-ahead young assistant head, Matthew Savage, who immediately involved students in making the classes in his English department better.

The pupils observed teachers at work, attended departmental meetings and advised on seating, displays and how lessons could be made more interesting.

Now the scheme has spread throughout the school, with nearly a quarter of all pupils, of all ages and abilities, acting as consultants on the so-called Making Learning Better (MLB) programme.

"It is fun getting to do what the teachers do," says Duha Abdulghaffar, 13, a maths consultant. "When we helped appoint a teacher we looked for someone who was strict but fair. We watched them teach a lesson. Some of them were too strict and old-fashioned, and some of them couldn't control the class properly."

Not all teachers were comfortable with the shake-up and some left. "They didn't say it was because of MLB," says Matthew Savage, "but it might as well have been."

Other teachers, according to Helen Jeffery, were worried that it sounded "a bit American". But now all accept it, even though it means they have to teach under the gimlet eyes of student observers.

MLB consultants are appointed - by teachers - for each subject, in each year group, with lead consultants who attend meetings. They are introduced to aspects of teaching and learning, such as the idea that people learn in different ways, and how teachers are supposed to try and cater for all different ability levels of pupils.

They observe lessons in mixed-age pairs, checking off a list of a dozen points. They list three strengths of the lesson and three areas for improvement. Observations take place in each department every couple of weeks, and each half-term some aspect of classroom life, such as wall displays, or seating arrangements, comes under the spotlight.

The young observers have proved stern critics. When interviewing and watching the trial lessons of teachers applying for jobs, they told Helen Jeffery that "they were not prepared to let one of them through to the afternoon" and that, of one group of candidates, "nobody was good enough to work at the school".

New teacher David Hogg remembers that he went away after his interview "thinking I had been properly grilled".

Helen Jeffery says some of her fellow heads throw up their hands in horror when they hear how much power she is putting into pupils' hands, but her students have gone on visits to other schools, attended and contributed to in-service teacher-training days, and attended a curriculum leadership meeting on ability grouping and mixed-ability classes. "In meetings," says Matthew Savage, "they are a lot better behaved than the teachers."

The scheme is having an impact on the school. Pupils have encouraged teachers to make lessons livelier, more varied and clearer. They have discussed which seating arrangements work best, put forward ideas about English texts and come up with novel ideas, such as using a system of numbers, colours and letters to help teachers assign seats quickly.

Relationships between teachers and pupils appear to benefiting. Ofsted inspectors were so impressed with the MLB programme that they called it "an outstanding feature" of the improving school. Now the school is watching to see how well its new optional homework policy will work.

"The idea is they take ownership of their work. It is so easy for young people to feel disempowered and disaffected," says Matthew Savage. Equally, much teacher time can be lost trying to chase up homework that hasn't been completed, and probably never will be.

Under the new regime, teachers pledge to teach pupils everything they need to know for an exam in class and then offer extra pieces of work that students can take home if they want to extend their learning. At first quite a lot of pupils took the freedom to say no, "but as they see other students being praised and rewarded for doing them you can see them starting to think, 'Oh, I could do that'," Savage explains.

It is impressive to see how calmly and confidently pupils wear their powers. Mariyam Khan, 15, a lead consultant for science, says, "I used to jump in about things I thought were being done wrong. Now if you have opinions there's a proper way you can be listened to." Consultants, she says, wear badges, everyone knows who they are, and a lot of people want to be them.

The school remains near the bottom of the Waltham Forest education authority's league table for GCSE results, but results are improving fast - last year it was among the top 100 schools in the country for percentage improvement, having gone from from 20 per cent of pupils getting five good GCSEs in 2002 to 43 per cent in 2004. It also boasts a palpably happy and purposeful atmosphere.

"There's something about the school that's special," says Savage. "I think the fact that students know they are listened to makes it special. Almost everyone has been won over by the professionalism and sensibleness of the students. But we must be careful not to work the poor kids too hard. They aren't paid, after all."

The hardest thing about running the scheme is keeping 120 consultants informed, circulating information, and getting people to turn up to early morning meetings. Any school embarking on such a programme needs to take it slowly, says Savage, and be sure to have someone like him willing to devote a lot of time to it.

Meanwhile, the school wants to turn the student council into a parliament and eventually have fully-fledged student governors.

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