Pupil power: The children who chose their own head

Opinon is divided about whether pupils should be involved in choosing their new head. Warwick Mansell talks to both sides
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The Independent Online

It sounds like education's version of The X-Factor. Two would-be head teachers take turns to lead an assembly in front of a junior school's pupils. The oldest children, two classes of 10- and 11-year-olds, then get to decide who they would prefer as their leader.

Although the governing body has the final say on whether or not to take their advice, it is clear that the children's views hold great sway. This is not television, however, but a real account of part of the process of appointing a head at a junior school in west Sussex.

But is it a healthy way of giving young people a say in the running of the school, or an "inappropriate" incursion into the grown-up world of appointing people to senior education positions?

This is part of the debate around "pupil voice", the growing trend in schools to involve the educated, as well as their educators, in decisions. The use of pupils in the selection of head teachers is just one aspect of arrangements that can now also embrace children's judgements on anything from the content of school meals to the quality of the teaching they receive.

The principle is relatively simple: to give young people a greater say in the lives of their schools. School councils are now thought to be present across the UK, and are even a legal requirement in Wales. Last year, legislation was introduced forcing all schools to consult pupils in the formulation of policy. Many children sit on school governing bodies. Some schools now have student-organised inspections. Teachers are sometimes encouraged to get pupils to assess their own work. And some students have been involved in lesson observation introduced by heads.

How are these moves being received? Although many teachers welcome the idea of giving young people a greater say in their education, pointing to the clear potential benefits to learning, there are contentious issues, with the use of pupils in staff appointment decisions proving most controversial.

Simon Wood emerged as the winner of the selection process described above. He is now head of Southwater juniors, a 450-pupil school near Horsham which is rated "outstanding" by Ofsted. Pupil voice is one of its strengths, with all children given the chance to show visiting parents around the school, all surveyed as part of the school's self-evaluation processes and lessons being highly interactive as children talk to teachers about their learning goals.

Since last year, children have been involved in the selection of all new members of staff.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wood feels the selection system has greatly benefited his school. He says: "This is very empowering for children. As someone coming in, it was very appealing that the children knew exactly what they wanted from the head teacher."

The pupils' recommendation was made during an exhaustive selection process which also saw the candidates fielding questions from a panel of 10 members of the school council, and giving several presentations to governors and staff. The oldest of Wood's young interrogators were 11. The youngest, in Year 5, were only nine.

The pupil panel consulted other children and agreed questions with a senior member of staff before posing them to Wood and others on the shortlist.

The assembly challenge followed, with the Year 6 children passing on their opinions to the governing body for a final decision. Sarah Hubbard, a year 5 teacher, says: "The children's views were listened to very closely by the governors, but in the end it was the governors' decision as to whom they took on.

"However, I think that if they were thinking of employing someone but the children did not like that person, they wouldn't have employed them."

The National College for School Leadership and Children's Services is in favour of the process, although subject to certain rules, which Southwater appears to have observed.

Toby Salt, the college's deputy chief executive, says: "It's vital that the pupil's perspective is heard in appointing the leader of their school but, of course, the final word rests with the governing body. This is not about turning headship appointments into an X-factor style audition, but input from students can be a valuable addition to the decision-making process."

The national college points to a survey it carried out with a random sample of 510 nine- to 11-year-olds. It found that one in 20 said they had been involved in interviewing a head teacher for their school. Of those who had not, 48 per cent said they would like to.

This is, however, annoying one of England's largest teachers' unions. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) says: "We think it's quite inappropriate. We do not have many problems with young people being involved in talking to candidates around a school, for example. But when the pupils become part of the interview process, we are completely against that.

"These are still young people. It is a very serious issue to be appointing a head teacher, or a teacher to a senior position in a school, and it is wrong for pupils to be involved in this way."

Keates says some of the union's members have pulled out of job applications after finding out they were to be interviewed by groups of up to 10 pupils. She adds that others had been concerned about the questions they had been asked, such as "would you take us on trips?" or "would you run after-school clubs?" These, says Keates, are "completely inappropriate" questions, implying that teachers should be assessed on their ability to perform their contractual duties, not to go beyond their employment terms.

The NASUWT has concerns about other aspects of pupil voice, although Keates says the union supports it in principle. Last year, the union made clear its concern that pupil consultation could be used as a vehicle by school managers to push a particular point of view, and that involving pupils in lesson observations "legitimises criticism of teachers".

Wood argues, however, that pupil voice need not be a problem in schools if it is handled sensitively. He says: "Personally, if I had not got this job because the pupils did not like me, I would not have thought I was the right person for the job. The NASUWT should come and see pupil voice in action. Having worked with the school council here and with our local infant school, the confidence, engagement, understanding and empathy that pupil voice engenders in the children far outweighs any downsides. I think it will have huge advantages to our society if used effectively."