[The decline in educational standards] is not the fault of the teachers – they work only too hard already.  The combined folly of a civilisation that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built on sand.  They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do.”
Dorothy Sayers, 1947 (quoted in Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21C)

My students’ folders have check sheets, documenting their state and (usually) academic targets).  With Sayers’ words in mind, I invite readers to examine this one:


What should I do?  The crosses, and the ‘R’s (Recheck) suggest this student can’t or won’t organise the folder.  I’m certain it’s the latter: he’s competent; he has a contents list; most students’ folders are fine.  I could fix the problems in five minutes.  If anyone (Ofsted or colleagues) sees this, I’ll get it in the neck, perhaps fairly so – it’s detective work identifying progress if you can’t tell the order of students’ work.  Reorganising the folder would keep my neck clean – but would it be right?

School – where students come to watch teachers work

There’s a lot of truth in this line, which I first heard from Dylan Wiliam: not only are teachers working too hard, they are often doing things students should be doing themselves.  Most teachers I know have stuck things into students’ exercise books on occasion; many make a habit of it.  But long-term, implicit messages matter too: offering too much help or doing a student’s job for them tells them: ‘You can’t do this well enough’ or ‘ You don’t need to do this.’

So I’ve tended towards ruthlessness in helping students as little as possible.  Everything that happens in a school should be for students’ benefit so I want to support them to work independently, and hold them responsible for doing so well.  Academically too,”the balance of cognitive effort” should ensure “teachers are doing less and students are doing progressively more and more of the speaking, thinking, writing, and analyzing, as soon as they are ready for it,” to quote Doug Lemov.

My students have found this frustrating – I was once asked “Can I have some paper – or do I have to make it myself?”  But, in time, students adapt, learn to work independently and appreciate doing so.  If I’m asked how I’m going to solve some underachievement or other, I start by considering what students need to do differently (rather than how I should work harder).  And as such, I abhor ‘interventions,’ which lay last-minute burdens on teachers to close gaps which students have often allowed to open.  In sum, let the students do the work!

Self-assurance precedes a humbling reconsideration

I saw this approach taken to its logical conclusions at a Swedish free school a few years ago however, where I played chess with some students skipping lessons.  No one chased them, they said: if they failed, the school would be paid to teach them again.  This can’t be right.

Or, conversely, the awe-inspiring Jo Facer described her Saturday interventions to me, designed to help the last dozen or so students in the cohort get a C in English.  I said I didn’t believe in interventions, but she replied that, knowing they were capable of a C,  and the effect it would have on their life chances, intervention was right.

So when should teachers be pushing themselves – perhaps harder than students?  How can we help students secure the best possible outcomes without incapacitating them?

Who should sort my student’s folder out?

In principle, I believe teachers should always aim to do the minimum possible while helping students to succeed, and should be looking to progressively reduce and remove support.

In the long run, I’d like to see more room to allow students to fail – and receive second chances.  Much of the pressure on teachers and students is caused by the fear that this may be their only chance.  But I’ve seen ‘failed’ students return to school as exemplary students, having learned from the experience: unearned success robs them of this opportunity to learn.  To avoid failed students slipping through the cracks, how about a ‘failure premium’ (not under that name) which would provide schools an extra 20% per ‘failed’ pupil, making them more desirable recruits and helping fund additional support?

In the interim…?  While I put hours into persuading students that hard work and success are in their best interests and I’ll help anyone I believe genuinely can’t do what I’m asking them, I draw the line at ensuring their success without sincere effort.  Irrespective of accountability measures, I feel we have to let students learn responsibility first – I’d honestly rather they failed but learned this lesson.

All very well, but…

It would take an exceptionally bold (one might say foolhardy) school leader to promise, not rapid and continual improvement, but allowing students who aren’t working hard enough to fail.  Nor am I clear how one could differentiate between a teacher skilfully challenging students to do as much as possible for themselves, and one who is too lazy to meet their needs.

Post Script
The school has moved to exercise books, to make progress demonstrable.

Further reading
Lucy Crehan’s fascinating take on this question from a Japanese perspective.
Blistering condemnations of interventions from John Tomsett and Deputy John.
Jo Facer’s inspirational account of what she achieved through interventions.