Low expectations confounded;FE Focus

26th March 1999 at 00:00
ONE OF the ways in which we can assess a teacher as incompetent is on teacher expectation. This is because various rather horrifying pieces of research have shown that students live up to or down from our expectations of them. This applies both to behaviour and to academic achievement. What we predict more often than not happens. It's clearly jolly good if we expect all our students to achieve highly and to behave well, since most of them will do as we expect. Conversely, if we think they are going to behave badly and perform badly, they will not disappoint us.

What is depressing is that our lords (and ladies) and masters seem not to have read the research or, if they have, not to have realised that it enshrines transferable information. It is, in short, not just about young people in school or college, but about human nature. Two things I have been reading recently seem to relate to this research and its conclusions. One is institutional racism, and the other is external examinations.

Taking the latter first, I read with amazement the suggestion that basic skills qualifications for adults should be assessed by means of final examination in order to avert cheating. By whom? The teachers? That would be in line with the expectations this administration, like the last, seems to have of teachers. How would it work, however? The adults who volunteer to take basic skills classes will presumably do so because they want to improve their communication and numeracy, and they will want this for a reason. If they pass when they have to gained the degree of competence they require, they will not care about having passed, but only that they cannot see their skills to the desired effect. There is no comparison between this and my O-level in geography.

When I took my O-levels. it was the first year that physical geography had been part of the syllabus. We'd never done any before, and - as we later learned - the specimen papers from which we were taught were not at all like what faced us in the examination. I do remember illustrating my map of the world with galleons and personified winds puffing from the corners, so little of that paper could I answer. We all passed, though, so I assume that all schools had the same problem as mine and the average mark on that paper was about 9 per cent.

Did we complain? Did we heck. I didn't want geography as such; it was an extra subject and that was all its value. Indeed, what I did learn has been of little value since it is now so out of date; I can still tell you about coalmining in Yorkshire and steel works in the Rohr. But if I were functionally illiterate and wanted to put that right, and took a course purporting to do so, I should be the first to complain if, on finishing the course and gaining my certificate, I remained functionally illiterate. The concept of cheating cannot be carried from qualification collection to skills courses for adults.

Expectation is also relevant to institutional racism, or sexism or any other form of prejudice come to that. I knew someone who always said before an appointment was made, "May the best man win". He subscribed to equal opportunities quite sincerely, but the best man often turned out to be a man all the same. There must be many establishments which eschew overt acts or words of racism, but in which black students are not expected to do as well as white students, and don't, or are expected to be louder or naughtier than white children, and are. Young people are even better than adults at catching the meaning behind the words, and at knowing how they are expected to perform.

And just as it is possible to improve pupils' or students' achievements by taking it for granted that they will pass, or gain high grades, or behave well when there are visitors in the schools or college, so it is possible to bear some responsibility when they perform as badly as one had anticipated that they would. So the young people live down to our expectations of them.

In this respect some educational institutions are at fault, as are some of the police and all other institutions unaware of the dangers of not taking the subject seriously.

But the Government is lucky that so few teachers live down to its low expectations of them. Performance-related pay as a new idea supposes that most teachers won't learn it, or it wouldn't be affordable. It also assumes, as does the Green Paper as a whole, that teachers are motivated mostly by money. There are a lot of other reasons why teachers enter and most of them stay in teaching.

Students, black and white, able and less able, need high self-esteem if they are to do themselves justice. So do teachers, and it would be good if they had high expectations to live up to.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon

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