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Individual Teachers Can’t Be Held Entirely Responsible for Students’ Outcomes

Educating children is a community endeavour, and thinking otherwise isn’t just illogical, argues Ben Newmark – it’s potentially devastating

  • Individual Teachers Can’t Be Held Entirely Responsible for Students’ Outcomes

I was living abroad when I became responsible for the results of my GCSE students.

Twenty-six years old and a brand new VSO volunteer, I had no idea that somewhere in a different continent thirty or so children were sitting SATS tests, and that their results would form the data on which, five years later, my ability as a teacher would be judged.

I wish someone had told me. If they had I could have come straight home and done something to help. Unfortunately nobody did and by the time I took over this class, the year before their exams, it was too late.

Most had done no meaningful history while at secondary school and, despite my best efforts, they didn’t do well.

Perhaps it is actually for the best I remained in blissful ignorance. Even if had taught them for five years how fair would it have been to ascribe their results to just my teaching anyway?

Outside influences

Whether children do well or badly in their final exams it is not fair to hold their teacher solely responsible.

Some children are tutored and others are not.

Some may use online resources produced by other teachers.

Some may be advantaged by parents who buy revision guides and insist on their use, while others have parents who don’t see any point in school.

Some have form tutors who phone home when homework is not done, and some never encounter anyone who cares whether they bother or not.

And, of course, some children just try harder than others, for reasons we don’t understand and can’t explain.

The truth is a child’s eventual result is the combination of a vast network of interlinking variables and any attempt to reduce it to a single one distorts the truth.

Even if the playing field could be levelled, which of course it can never be, teachers still should not be held wholly accountable, because they do not have independence in their classrooms.

Few teachers are free to plan, teach, assess, track progress or indeed do much of anything exactly how they want to. All must follow policies they do not devise, good and bad, regardless of whether or not they agree.

If a policy is a bad one – say, insisting a lesson begins with brain gym – it is not fair to blame the teacher for disappointing results.

Doing so provides fertile ground for micro-management, invasive coercion and bullying, as teachers are forced to do things they don’t believe in then blamed when these things don’t work.

A crime of punishment

This nonsense would be much easier to ignore had so many schools not made it a component of Performance Related Pay.

There are thousands of teachers whose career progression and pay is dependent on something over which they have limited influence.

That this is thought necessary to get teachers to work effectively is awfully depressing, and perhaps even dangerous.

Motivating teachers with money may lead to gaming systems and cutting corners more than it does better teaching.

Good teachers do their best for students because it is a professional duty and moral responsibility, not for more cash – and to suggest otherwise is to sleight the integrity of those who care very deeply.

Furthermore, blaming teachers for the bad results of groups of children allows government and wider society to ignore important issues that are causing them to underachieve.

The blame game

Educating children is a community endeavour. From the site team who fix the heating to the conscientious father reading to his child at night, we are all responsible.

We could, I suppose, get someone to design a complicated algorithm that tries to work out exactly how much each teacher is accountable for each child’s result.

I’m sure this would please those with a love of spreadsheets who think numbers are the point.

Or we could accept the obvious: this sort of bean counting is impossible, a waste of time and damaging for recruitment and retention at a period when we can’t hire teachers and are struggling to keep the ones we have.

Of course not all educators are good enough and this should never be ignored; but punishing teachers if children get poor exam results is a thoughtless way to deal with this.

Pointing out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes is not making excuses or avoiding responsibility. It is telling the truth.

There are just too many variables to ever say any exam score is down to just one person. So let’s do the sensible thing, and stop trying.

Ben Newmark is a history teacher. You can find him on his YouTube channel and follow him on Twitter at @bennewmark.

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