Student interviewers have received a lot of bad press. Earlier this year, a number of national newspapers featured lurid stories about student panels asking a candidate to sing their favourite song, while rejecting another applicant because ‘he looked like Humpty Dumpty’. Amid a chorus of ‘this never happened in my day’, many dismissed such interview panels as the latest piece of evidence supporting the long-term decline of educational standards in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, the truth is rather different. To be frank, there are fewer horror stories about interviews carried out by students than there are about those carried out by adults. Far from being an embarrassment, my experience as a headteacher is that when young people are given the chance to take part in interviews they are perceptive, thoughtful and quick to see things that I may have missed.
Over the past two weeks I have sat through interviews during which candidates have said how much they have enjoyed their conversations with our students. I often find this a helpful guide when making an appointment – if a teacher actually enjoys speaking to pupils then that probably bodes well for the future.
On the very rare occasions that our policy of student interviewers has been questioned, I have pointed out that I am not asking anyone to do anything that I have not done myself. When I applied for my current headship just over 10 years ago, I remember suspiciously reading the phrase ‘student panel’ on the interview schedule. Inevitably this became the dominant topic of conversation among candidates as we nervously waited for the process to begin. How did one respond to a group of pupils carrying out an interview – was this some sort of hidden test?
The candidate who had already asked the most questions to the chair of governors during his tour of the school confidently told us that he had the entire process ‘sussed’. He was certain that the students would be so in awe of him that they would not be able to think of any questions to ask. Hence he planned to organise them into ‘buzz’ groups before giving them a chance to ‘thought shower’ back to him at the end of the session.
I passed him, looking white-faced and shaken, as I went into the interview room. He had discovered an important truth: that student panels do not respond well to being patronised or having someone else steal their agenda. My experience was that they had a set of reasonable questions to ask, which reflected their concerns at that time. Just as their questions were direct, so they expected me to give an open and clear answer.
The panel were particularly concerned that the school did not have whole-school assemblies and I immediately pledged that I would re-introduce them (I had no idea how, but I was desperate for the job). Pupils also repeatedly asked me how I would develop the school’s house system, emphasising that they particularly appreciated the opportunity that it provided for different age groups to work together. ‘We know the school isn’t bothered about any of this, but we are,’ said the quietly spoken sixth-former who chaired the interview. The school’s deputy head sat in the corner and made frantic notes, the look on his face betraying his obvious bemusement at a set of priorities that did not reflect his own.
It was only when I became headteacher that I realised how far-sighted these questions had been. My early weeks in the school helped me see what the students had realised: that it needed ways to build and enhance its sense of community. Re-introducing whole-school assemblies offered the easiest and most effective way of doing this. Hence, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself carrying out the promise that I had made in the interview room within three months of coming to the school.
The second question took longer to act upon. I spent the next six years grappling with ways to further develop the sense of community within the school. It was only when my newly appointed deputy suggested that this could be done through a structure of vertical tutoring based around the house system that I realised how dull and slow I had been. The students on my interview panel were way ahead of me – they saw the need for a strategy that I had spent six years muddling towards.
Perhaps this points towards the real reason why student panels have had so much bad press. As adults we find it difficult to admit that we do not have a monopoly when it comes to creativity and insight. Difficult as it may be for some to accept, pupils bring a unique and important perspective to the process of making decisions within schools because they know so much about what actually happens (as opposed to what we would like to think is happening). Their priorities may not be the same as ours, but that makes it doubly important that they are involved in appointments and are not ignored.
Uncomfortable though it might be for some, the truth is that our students have a distinctive and important voice, one that we need to listen to and not ignore.
Peter Kent is headteacher at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, Warwickshire