Beware the trap of seeing students as just labels

Why we need to be careful not to put children in the boxes that accountability can make for them

Jules Daulby

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Imagine a school where all the students stuck to all of the rules all of the time. Where they learned easily and put maximum effort into everything they did. Where there were no safeguarding issues, no mental health issues, and children arrived well dressed and well fed, dropped off by their parents who are eager to engage with and listen to the advice of their teachers.

For some, that would be the perfect school. But not me – schools should be for all learners, not just the ones that make life easy. And this utopian school does not, of course, exist in reality. But the hope – or the belief – that such a school could exist can leads to us perceiving some of our students differently: namely, those students that struggle, or that ruin a school’s 100 per cent attendance record or that need extra attention – in whatever form that might be.

What happens when a teacher has a child affecting class grades? What happens when a target for a child plummets for myriad reasons, including divorce, abuse, self-harm, illness and mental health? Do teachers worry for the child or panic about targets?

We would all like to believe that our moral compass means the child will always come first. But, in reality, the more scrutiny there is of accountability structures, the harder schools find it to prioritise children’s wellbeing and to remember the dignity of the child.

I often cite a time in my early teaching career where we’d had a telling off for not filling in absentee registers and our deputy head had asked us to remember to get letters from home. One of my tutor group, who’d been away for a week, came up to my desk and the first thing I said to him was, “Do you have your sick note?”

I didn’t realise until a few minutes later that I hadn’t asked the poor boy how he was; I was horrified. When paperwork becomes more important than the child, you have lost sight of why you are a teacher; the school may as well be empty.

It’s the labels that demonstrate how far we have come from where we should be. Walk round any school and you will see a gifted and talented event – a pulsating poster celebrating the chosen few. They’re off to London to the Houses of Parliament, meeting with someone from the University of Oxford, being stretched and having their genes polished and shone.

Then there’s the students who find learning difficult; “thick”, “nothing between the ears” and “my specials” are all terms I’ve heard in staffrooms over the years.

There are less obvious examples, however, which I’m complicit in. If a child is struggling, my first thought is usually to ask whether they are pupil premium as the system throws more resources their way. I’m glad to say our school does not put such students on separate tables to identify them or label their planner so teachers know straight away, but I’ve heard of this happening in other schools.

We should be mindful of the language that we use. When students become currency, the consequence is that some are seen as less valuable and it can be a way of justifying a poorer education.

Headteachers and governors need help from government and Ofsted through an accountability structure that ensures all children make progress, not just the few. It seems the current structures mean that the currency of the child may, at times, negate the dignity of the child.

Jules Daulby is literacy and language coordinator for Thomas Hardye School in Dorset

This is an article from the 15 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Jules Daulby picture

Jules Daulby

SEN advisory teacher for a local authority, a former English and drama teacher and a former deputy head of sixth form

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