Love and hate

20th July 2012 at 01:00

"You liar." The student stood in front of the class, pointed her finger and spat out the words. Were they aimed at one of her peers? No. The person on the receiving end of her wrath was her teacher, who had awarded a grade not to her liking.

While this scenario, which happened recently to a colleague of mine, is at the more extreme end of the scale, few teachers in FE are likely to be unaware of the concern - some might call it hysteria - felt by today's students over grades.

Not many courses are left in colleges where the assessment is entirely external. Yes, exams are still around, but almost all teachers are now routinely expected to be both judge and jury in the court of student performance.

Inevitably this leads to conflict, not least because it brings into sharp relief the contradiction in the role of the teacher. Most of the time you are a nurturer: you propel your students towards fulfilling their potential. Then all of a sudden you are wearing a different hat and telling them, via the grade you award, that maybe they are not so great after all.

Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining the vehemence with which some of them react. When a faceless examiner hands out a disappointing grade it's a downer. But when it's the person who's been making you feel good about yourself all year it feels more like a betrayal. Certainly that was the way the finger-pointing student saw it.

On the courses I teach these days - mainly access programmes, preparing adult students for university - the fanatical pursuit of grades is relatively recent. Until two or three years ago assessment was a simple pass or fail. Now that work is assessed at merit and distinction as well, full scale war has broken out. Faced with a lower grade than they wanted, some students lose all sense of proportion. Any semblance of reasonable behaviour goes out the window.

It happened to me just the other day. Derek - who needed good grades to get into his university of choice - came to the staffroom to protest that the passes I had given him should really have been merits. He then proceeded to tell me, in front of my colleagues, where I was going wrong.

When I pointed out that I had referred one of his units - at his request - to a colleague who had confirmed the grade, he said that just proved we were working together to deprive him of his rightful reward. In other words, I was both inept and corrupt.

A week later I emailed Derek to tell him that two of his other units had been (rightly) awarded a merit. I quote his response verbatim: "Thank you Stephen I love you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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