Spy in the class­room?

Teach­ers ex­press con­cerns over school’s ‘se­cret shop­pers’ feed­back scheme

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - EDITORIAL - Will hazell

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.

‘Cor­ro­sive’ prac­tice

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.”

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