Every teacher likes to think they are fair in the way they treat their students. And I am no exception.
Rooting through a staffroom drawer recently, I came across a sociology textbook from the early 1970s. Education featured strongly - and it was clear that the authors thought the teachers of their day routinely indulged in stereotyping of the most blatant kind.
In particular, they pointed to issues of social class and the way teachers tailored their expectations to the students' backgrounds. Those from "slum areas" were viewed as "difficult to teach" and "poor performers". But with students from more affluent surroundings, teachers were quoted as saying things like, "You feel you're accomplishing so much more," and, "The students know what you're talking about and are prepared to really think about it."
Thankfully, I thought as I closed the book, those days are behind us. While few doubt the link between social class and educational achievement, such negative stereotyping has long gone. But has it? Shortly after the book had disappeared back into its drawer, I came across evidence to suggest otherwise.
It arrived in the form of a research project into the way teachers mark work and was carried out by Bristol University's Centre for Market and Public Organisation. It found a disparity between the marks teachers routinely give their charges and the scores those same students achieved in externally assessed tests.
Social class was one factor, in that white children from deprived areas were marked down by their teachers when compared with those from more middle-class backgrounds. More striking, however, was the bias in marking relating to ethnicity.
Here it was found that black pupils from African and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds often received lower marks from their own teachers than from "blind" external assessments. Interestingly, the opposite was true for Indian and Chinese children, who were often over-rewarded by their teachers compared with their exam performances.
The authors of the study, Simon Burgess and Ellen Greaves, concluded that this was not so much due to overt racism as categorisation and stereotyping.
Teachers were influenced by the way certain groups had performed in the past. And on the basis of such models or templates they made their estimates of their current students' worth. Such bias was particularly pronounced, they observed, in areas where there were few black or socially deprived children in classrooms.
While the Bristol University study was based on evidence from schools, it is hard to believe such factors aren't also at work in FE. It could be argued that the results of these prejudices are likely to be more important in FE, with many vocational and adult qualifications assessed by coursework.
"Not me" was, of course, my first reaction to such thoughts. Don't I strive to be fair and impartial in marking my students' work? And aren't there checks and balances built into coursework marking? But no doubt the anonymous teachers of those involved in the Bristol study would have said the same.
Perhaps a more grown-up approach would be less to kick back at the study's implications than to think how they might be mitigated. Or to put it another way, what can we do about it?
Marking takes up so much time and energy in many teachers' lives, yet it hardly ever comes up as a subject for in-service training. In more than 30 years in the FE classroom, I can't think of a session offered specifically on the subject.
I often attend "compulsory" training sessions on far less crucial topics. Well thought-out sessions on how to mark students' work usefully and fairly - now that would be welcome.