Spy in the classroom?
Teachers express concerns over school’s ‘secret shoppers’ feedback scheme
A school’s ‘mystery shopper’ scheme is dissected by experts
MYSTERY SHOPPERS – members of the public who visit a shop or restaurant incognito to give feedback on its goods and customer service – are a well-established practice in the retail and hospitality sectors.
But could one be coming to a classroom near you?
A school in the north east of England has started using “secret shoppers” among its pupils to anonymously observe lessons and provide feedback on teaching to the senior leadership team.
Are these pupils unwanted spies in the classroom who will undermine teachers’ authority? Or could they be a powerful tool for improving teaching and learning?
Longfield Academy, a secondary school in Darlington, County Durham, has started using secret shoppers as part of teachers’ continuing professional development. The scheme began last half-term and teachers were told it would continue on an ongoing basis.
According to a slideshow presentation shared with Tes, the pupils chosen to be the shoppers are “briefed early in the half term” and “feedback in the penultimate week to SLT”.
Anonymous feedback based on the secret shopping is then given to each of Longfield’s six faculties in the last week of term, which the school has dubbed “Customer Service Week”.
The slideshow says that planning time will be provided to “build on positives and address customer dissatisfaction”.
Longfield headteacher Susan Johnson insists teachers have nothing to fear from the scheme.
“Secret shopper is part of a wider whole school strategy that aims to celebrate success and promote sharing of good practice,” she says.
“Although in its very early stages, staff feedback received so far has been positive as a great deal of the pupil feedback validated the success of the strategies that staff are already using.”
However, the initiative has proven controversial. Tes spoke to two teachers who have been part of the Longfield scheme – both of whom asked to remain anonymous – who were highly critical of the idea.
The first teacher said that the idea was launched without any consultation with staff. “I personally think it’s absolutely outrageous,” they said. “Basically, the kids were sent in to spy on us.”
The teacher said that the SLT had tried to provide reassurance, but to little avail.
“The SLT said: ‘lessons should be carrying on as normal to the end of year, it’s nothing to worry about, it’s to inform us, don’t think there’s any pressure,’ which is obviously a load of rubbish.
“The minute you hear the word ‘observation’ or ‘secret shopper’ or anything like that you’re terrified aren’t you?
“We don’t know what information was shared [with SLT], we’ll never know and I’m just not comfortable with that at all.”
The teacher also felt the process undermined their authority. “We have to be seen as the authority in the classroom and we are giving the students the power to take that authority away from us,” they said.
‘Children aren’t experts’
A second teacher agreed that the system “definitely” undermined their authority, and also queried whether pupils were well placed to critique lessons.
“They’re not experts, the children cannot identify why you are doing what you are doing – they just don’t have the nous,” the teacher said. “It’s not their fault, they’re kids; that’s not their job.”
This teacher said that when the feedback from the secret shoppers was shared at the end of term it wasn’t particularly helpful.
For example, staff were told that pupils approved of displays – even though a member of the SLT allegedly acknowledged they did not improve learning.
“The person from SLT said: ‘Now we know the research on displays says they’re no good, but the kids like them!’”
So could secret shopping take off in schools across the country? A number of prominent figures in the education world are sceptical of the idea.
Tom Bennett, director of Researched and a teacher who authored a report for the Department for Education on behaviour management, is a vocal critic of the approach that many schools have taken to addressing “student voice” (see box, left).
“I think in general these types of activities are unhelpful and unhealthy for schools to participate in,” he says.
Bennett says that the nature of secret shopping “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between the school and their teachers, who should be treated as “adults and professionals”.
“What this does instead is it treats them as untrusted employees by not telling the teachers when and who is going to be giving the class feedback.”
As well as eroding authority, he believes the use of secret shoppers could damage the trust between teachers and their students.
“If pupils feel that they’ve got a private and somewhat secret scrutineering power then it fundamentally changes that relationship of trust,” he says.
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the ATL union, says the use of secret shoppers in schools is a “corrosive, nasty…thing to do”, and that it risks turning teaching into a “popularity contest”.
“It’s underhand, deceitful, and it corrupts the proper order of relations in schools,” she adds.
However, others are more open-minded about the scheme. Kevin Stannard, director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust, thinks Longfield’s use of secret shopping is a “fascinating way” of approaching student voice.
The school providing feedback on a facultywide basis to ensure it is “clearly decoupled” from the performance of individual teachers is “exactly the right way to go”, he says.
Stannard believes pupils are able to “step back” and take a long-view of their learning, which can provide “a really valuable additional source of evidence” for teachers.
“Students are not being asked as expert teachers – they’re being asked as very experienced and quite perceptive learners about what works for them,” he says.
Ms Johnson says: “We are acutely aware that the pupils are our customers and gathering pupil voice has always been important to us.
“However, in the past, we have not always informed the pupils in advance that we would be asking them for their views. Trialling this strategy has enabled us to give the pupils time to consider what they would like their feedback to be.”
Johnson says the students chosen to be secret shoppers were “proud to be asked to participate” and gave “constructive and thoughtful” feedback.
“Their responses covered a range of aspects of their learning, from the value of good displays to enjoying being given time to make notes in their own format.”