First Person: When teachers won't admit any mistake

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The Independent Online
Is the education system failing some of our children? Bill Parker believes two institutions have failed his son, by refusing to accept the slightest criticism of their methods.

I am sure that those who have taught our son in different educational establishments over the past few years have found him an awkward customer. An underachiever and a self-confessed sceptic of anything associated with "authority", he has now, at 18 years of age, dropped out of both school and further education college with what may be described as modest qualifications.

Though intelligent and imaginative, he has collected no accolades or prizes, only the dubious label, I can well imagine, of "pain in the neck". But, that said, he has never been expelled from an educational institution and he has been excluded, briefly, only once; nor is he, in any obvious sense, a liar.

As a parent, I am convinced that if the educational system fails as a whole it is because it fails young men and women like my son; and if it succeeds it is because it engages with such youngsters with sensitivity and understanding, capitalising on the many qualities which they undoubtedly possess.

Certainly, if educational establishments fall short of delivering best practice, then the likes of our son, already full of contempt, will turn their backs on education, perhaps for ever.

From time to time my wife and I have concluded that both school and college have fallen quite a way below best practice in our son's case, and we have felt it important to take the matter up, in the first instance by setting out our concerns in a letter to headteacher or college principal.

But in the face-to-face meeting that follows we have been dismayed to find that, while we are only too ready to concede shortcomings in our son, the school or college, for its part, replies that on the issues we have raised, its procedures and the competence of its staff are totally beyond reproach.

One reason why we have found this dismaying is because it does not square with the findings of the schools inspectorate, at the moment being given considerable publicity, that there really are bad teachers around. Another reason is that both my wife and I work in educational establishments ourselves and we daily see with our own eyes that both bad practice and bad colleagues, though not widespread, regrettably continue to exist.

More than this, when school head or college principal meet us as parents and deny that anything in their establishments bearing on our son is anything other than whiter than white, not only do they imply that our son has completely fantasised his complaints; their own accounts of the matters at issue seem to us to be highly imaginative.

My son resumed his education at a further education college full of enthusiasm and hope, after spending a couple of years in menial jobs after leaving school. Yet, rapidly, negative accounts were being conveyed home. More in astonishment than malice he reported that the geography lecturer repeatedly failed to turn up to take the class and indeed that, following complaints from students, the module had to be rescheduled for the next semester; and that the history lecturer considered that the best way to put across his subject was to dictate information for close on two hours at a stretch, becoming angry if students tried to take down notes more selectively.

But the college principal denied it all: the geography module was a new one, he claimed, and was continuing into the second semester because it was taking an unexpected length of time to get through the material; as to the history lecturer's methods, the way my son had reported them was completely untrue.

For us this was all too reminiscent of our confrontation with the school headteacher three years before. The lower set French GCSE class, our son had been complaining, was virtually out of control, routine swearing among pupils was occurring, and the teacher's solution was to plough on pretending it was not happening. The school denied this outright. Yet just a few months before, the head of languages was heard to declare at a social gathering that "language for all" classes (which my son was attending) were proving to be a complete nightmare.

It seems to us that when we met the school head and college principal a distinctive pattern established itself. First we would be told that our complaints had been fully investigated (by consultation with the relevant staff), and that there was absolutely no "evidence" to support our son's reports. Then the fact that our son was not an easy student, together with hints of yet other facts which could not be revealed to us because of "confidentiality", would be wheeled out to justify discounting what he had said.

I myself, as a university lecturer of more than 25 years' standing, have a professional interest in all this. The issues we covered in our discussions with school or college head are similar to the ones that university student representatives are continually bringing up at their departmental staff- student councils.

My experience is that though on such matters students do sometimes get the wrong end of the stick, on very many others they definitely have valid points of suggestion or complaint (often to their departments' considerable embarrassment). My firm conclusion is that what my wife and I encountered in relation to my son's problems and concerns at school and college (he is neither confident nor articulate enough to raise them himself) was simply a cover-up and a closing of ranks. Perhaps behind the scenes certain staff were being told to pull up their socks, but in front of the customer no admissions of guilt were going to be allowed.

We are aware of the considerable pressures under which our colleagues in education work, but find this attitude highly unproductive. When, as parents, we have raised our worries and offered our suggestions, we have fallen over backwards (perhaps too far?) to express the view that, where there is dissatisfaction about school or college performance, faults and misunderstandings are likely to lie on both sides of the teaching divide. But the establishments we encountered would have none of it. Are we correct in concluding that, in the present somewhat paranoid climate in the educational process in this country, schools or colleges that might otherwise be prepared to admit shortcomings are too afraid of possible litigation to do so?

Are they frightened that an admission of shortcomings would rapidly feed into the wider community, with all that this implies in terms of student recruitment and position in the league tables? If so, then the possibility for parents and schools and colleges working constructively together to improve best practice would appear to be dead.

Bill Parker is a pseudonym.

The writer is a university lecturer.

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