Power to the pupils: A Bristol school is giving students a say in key decisions

Pupils have a say in key decisions, from interviewing new teachers to deciding how much homework should be set. Could the idea catch on?
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The Independent Online

The pupils have just convinced the headmaster to reduce their homework. Now they do half an hour less in the evenings in their first year at school. They have also secured a place on interviewing panels for senior teaching posts. In addition, a new fledgling scheme whereby they observe their teachers during lessons and pass on their comments to the head has just been launched.

To some it might sound like the kind of "pupil power" practice of which right-wing commentators and even lefter-wing teachers' leaders would disapprove. Wackford Squeers, that tyrant of Dickens' Dotheboys Hall, would be turning in his grave.

Yet the school that has launched the scheme is one of the country's leading independent schools, with a tradition of providing education that stretches back 478 years to 1532 – Bristol Grammar School.

"I started student interview panels a year before I took the post and we knew there would be at least one change in the senior management of the school in the meantime," says Rod MacKinnon, the school's headteacher. "It was a very valuable experience. The students responded really well."

What happens is that a students' panel of about five or six youngsters – which is made up of pupils from different year groups – interviews candidates for the post. "You try not to let them come up with a recommendation, but they will come in here and I'll respond to their feedback. They are very much part of the process – they're one piece of the evidence."

It is more sophisticated than some of the pupil interviewing schemes that caused outrage at this year's National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' conference. A report compiled by the union revealed that one group had asked the candidates – or should it have been contestants? – to sing. Others had asked intimate details about their private lives. In all, it listed 200 cases where it said pupil power had been abused. At one primary school, a pupil marked down a candidate because he "looked like Humpty Dumpty". The union came out against the idea, which had been heavily supported by Labour ministers in the past. However, MacKinnon, who took up his post two years ago, says: "Inappropriate questions have never been an issue. Besides, experienced adults have asked some inappropriate questions, too. A long time ago I had to stop a staff interview because a quite-inappropriate question was asked about a candidate's wife."

So how much influence do the pupils have on who is chosen? MacKinnon says he cannot recall ever appointing a candidate who fell out of favour with the students' panel. He strongly believes that involving the pupils in their education helps them to understand its importance, and his experience is that they take their new-found role seriously. "It is very planned – we get them to think about their questions beforehand," he says.

One of his staff who has been through the student interview process is Guy Martyn, now deputy head at the school. In fact, he has been through it three times, with mixed success – getting two jobs and not the third. "I think the first time it was a very large panel – about 11 people," he says. "It was a panel that had become a little drunk with their power. It was totally unwieldy. However, although if you'd talked to me a few years ago I'd have said it wasn't a good idea, because I didn't have a good experience of it, but this school has worked it out."

Libby Ballon, a sixth-form student who was one of the interviewing panel, says: "I think it's an incredibly useful thing to do. It was quite interesting. One candidate was more progressive and wanted to move things on. I don't think our view was ignored. I think it was useful as a student to give you some idea as to the working world."

That was MacKinnon's first innovation. Since then he has set up an academic council that allows pupils to debate how subjects and issues are taught in the school. One of the first topics to come under the microscope was homework, with pupils in year seven – their first year in the senior school – saying they felt one-and-a-half hours a night was too much. Their views are channelled to the school's curriculum committee by Imy Jenkins, a former pupil who is now in her gap year and working at the school. "Lots of the year group were saying this was too much," she said. "It didn't give them time to take part in many of the voluntary activities run by the school. I put their thoughts to the curriculum committee and they agreed. Homework's now gone down to just an hour a night."

His third innovation – letting pupils observe and make observations on their teachers' lessons – is still in its infancy. "It's wise and very common to get some feedback about how lessons are delivered," he says. "Children don't say things like 'he was rubbish'. They will say things like 'if he hadn't talked for so long, that might have helped'."

The national drive to encourage more pupil participation using student councils and taking part in interviews appears to have stalled since the Coalition Government came to power. The way it is being delivered at Bristol Grammar School may help remove some of the fears of teachers' leaders about its impact and may just be the catalyst that sparks its renaissance.