Teachers’ pets win prizes

14 August 2009
The Guardian

Are there far too many teachers’ pets in England? Do too many teachers from England unfairly favour certain students over others? A survey supervised by researchers at the University of Birmingham, in which 14,000 14- and 15-year-olds from England, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Japan, Italy and France were questioned, suggests that English teachers are the worst when it comes to having their “pets”. Just 42% of pupils in England agreed with the statement “teachers treat me no better or worse than other pupils”, the lowest of any of the countries. In France and Belgium, 62% of pupils agreed.

As a teacher myself, I have to hold my hands up: I do have my favourites, but I don’t think my favouritism is unfair. I put a heavy emphasis upon rewarding good behaviour with praise and attention, and doing my best to ignore and eradicate poor behaviour. So inevitably I get the comments that so many of my profession receive: “Sir, why are you picking on me?”

Every teacher I know complains at some point about this phenomenon; the child who ignores all the manifest evidence and believes he or she is being treated unfairly. Issues connected with gender and social class come into play here. In my view, the curriculum unfairly favours the kinds of skills that many girls currently exhibit: conformist, detailed, neatly presented, studious but ultimately unimaginative work. The curriculum punishes boys because they are often less detailed, scruffy, and more prone to risk-taking. Many teachers love teaching girls because they are so much easier to control. I myself decided to teach at a girls’ school for a few years for this very reason. Returning to teach in a mixed-sex comprehensive made me aware how different boys are in their learning; they need stimulus, a sense of purpose, a sense of a mission. Too often they are punished because they don’t act like girls.

All the statistics reveal we have a serious problem with our boys: the vast majority of children excluded from school are boys. Overwhelmingly, it is boys from minority groups who are excluded the most: those with special educational needs, and from certain ethnic and social backgrounds: those from white working class and African-Caribbean backgrounds top the exclusion league tables. In the vast majority of cases, these children have exhibited troubling behaviour from the moment they entered school, having great difficulty in communicating properly with their peers and teachers. Studies show that English schools are particularly bad at remedying these communication issues at an early stage, failing to identify them and leaving them to fester. I have taught too many of these children over the years: children who have a permanent chip on their shoulder about how they’ve been treated, who disrupt the education of too many other children and who have been completely failed by the system.

In this sense, the teachers’ pet survey does reveal significant problems in our schools: we need to find ways of engaging all of our pupils, making all of them feel that they are valued. We need to find a way of educating all pupils, not just our “pets”.

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