It can be both just and fair to treat each child unequally

18th May 2018 at 00:00
If you need to give pupils special treatment, it’s likely classmates will react with empathy, says Nancy Gedge

“It’s not fair!” was the refrain from my sister and I, as we railed against what we saw as the unfair application of rules by our parents or teachers. It’s a phrase that echoed in my mind when I became a teacher.

Children rapidly lose respect for teachers who treat them unfairly by having favourites or by applying the school rules differently, depending on who breaks them. I didn’t want that happening to me. Yet, every child is different, and because we know them – or are getting to know them – we respond differently to each of them.

Little Jack, whose parents split up last month, gets a different tone of voice to Jenny, who has recently moved house. Tamara gets a sticker chart all of her own and a chance to talk with her teacher about it after every lesson. Tommy, who finishes everything perfectly and has time to tidy up, does not. You would think that Tommy, in the interest of fairness, should have a sticker chart, or might want one, because Tamara does.

Our sense of fair play might make us feel that Tommy ought to have one or else he might grow up with a chip on his shoulder because he didn’t get the same treatment as his classmates.

The thing is, though, I’ve taught several Tommys, Tamaras, Daniels, Gemmas, Viktorias and Jamals, and I’ve never found any of them to have a problem with this. In fact, quite the opposite. The last time I used a personal-behaviour book, it took ages to fill it in, as not only Tamara, but a growing band of her classmates, joined in the discussion over how great she had been and how many smileys she ought to have had.

Compassion in the young

I’ve thought about it a lot, this phenomenon of compassion in the young, and I think it comes down to a couple of things.

Firstly, these children know each other. They know each other and they know some of their difficulties. When the mother of a little girl in my class died during the summer holidays, there wasn’t a single child who didn’t think she needed a bit of special treatment.

And secondly, it’s about the class climate that we create: one of tolerance and respect, where we understand that all are different and all equal – and that this means that we all need different things to help us learn.

Teachers should be confident about sharing this attitude with their classes and ensure that the deployment of stickers – or anything else – doesn’t come across as favouritism or unfairness (and if it does, we should apologise). What it actually is, is justice.


Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust, which works with schools and teachers on SEND. She is the Tes SEND specialist, and author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers. She tweets @nancygedge

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