Whose fault is it anyway?

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Is a teenager's academic success really down to the school and its teachers or are wider factors at play? Psychologist Dr Stephanie Thornton discusses.

We all know that the quality of teaching matters. A good teacher not only imparts information, but conveys an infectious enthusiasm for the subject and for learning in general. A bad teacher can confuse and demotivate, killing the most intriguing of subjects stone dead.

And we all know that the quality of leadership matters, too. A head who is in command, who creates a positive dynamic in which the efforts of students – and teachers – are recognised and appreciated, who demands respect, not just for learning but for every individual in the school, creates an environment that empowers. An ineffectual head who can inspire neither staff nor students allows negative attitudes and habits to take command, and results to fall.

So let’s agree: the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership in a school really do matter. High quality in these areas is beyond doubt a necessary condition for a school to thrive. But are these things truly sufficient to guarantee a school’s success, as some want to claim?

This is an issue that needs to be explored urgently in a time when the powers that be are inclined to evaluate schools and their staff primarily in light of the achievements of their students. Is that rational? Productive? Or is it just another short-sighted exercise in passing the buck?

Without doubt, there are some people in teaching posts who do more harm than good. And without doubt, there are some heads who really have no command, no creativity and who offer gloom rather than inspiration. Replacing these with other, more able individuals is very likely to produce a benefit, an improvement in educational achievement.

But even in these cases, will it last? There is a phenomenon, well known to psychology, called the Hawthorne effect: any change (however irrelevant) produces a surge in performance for a while, just because it is a change, and after a while, after the cameras move on, everything reverts to what it was before.

The fact is that no-one embarks on a teaching career to be second rate, to “go through the motions”, to not care. No-one accepts all the stresses and strains of headship intending to fail. 

One can be sure of this, not because one has a strong belief in the goodness of human nature but because teaching is so arduous and so poorly paid: the cynical and exploitative could be so much more profitably employed elsewhere. 

The odd individual is wrongly placed, and perhaps better pruned. But if a whole school culture has “gone west”, one has to ask why that was? There are circumstances that would try the patience, the commitment and the motivation of a saint – and left unresolved, may tend to undermine the best of staff.

The fact is that some catchment areas simply do not dispose toward the attainment of academic standards. There are factors that affect educational success that lie far outside the gates – and control – of the school.

There is the obvious: given that all human abilities are “normally distributed”, we all know that by definition, half the population will fall below the top of that bell-shaped curve, and some will fall quite a way below it.

And we know full well that there are systematic differences between catchment areas that mean that this will impact differently on different schools. Given exactly the same quality of teaching input, some schools will do better than others as a result. 

Can such problems be rectified at the school level? In principle, yes: given sufficient resources, and other things being equal, it is entirely feasible to provide the individualised input that every student needs to reach government standards. But in 30 years of research in schools, I have never seen a school that had the resources to properly assess, let alone address, the individual needs of all its weaker students. And other things have never been equal.

A school is not a disembodied entity floating outside society. It exists in a context: a context that is geographical, social, cultural and political. And those things, those influences that lie far beyond the school gate, have a profound effect on the educational attainment of its pupils.

In inner city America, Black American high school students systematically fail. They fall short of the system’s aspirations for them. Is it genetic? No. Are they poorly taught? No – the schools in which they “fail” are fine for other demographics. Research suggests that the problem is elsewhere. It seems that the educational aspirations (or not) of inner city Black Americans are set by the attitudes of their peer culture. 

To succeed in education is to take the “Uncle Tom” path. That will alienate you from your peer group, which can have dangerous – maybe even fatal – consequences. Choose between getting stabbed or failing the maths test? That is what it comes down to for some. And like, in some UK communities, belonging matters more than education – and such effects systematically hit some schools more than others. And then, family stress, social or economic (which tend to fuse, one leading to the other) also has a huge effect on school attainment.

The best evidence comes from Terman’s study of genius, which showed that even the most gifted of children would decline, failing to meet academic standards and even scoring lower on IQ tests, after a family breakdown or economic trauma. 

Such effects are sometimes individual, hitting one family in a community where most thrive. But in our times, such effects are communal: whole communities suffering from unemployment and the stresses which that engenders (and again, the effects are starker in some communities than in others).

We must also take the adolescent perspective seriously. They are not stupid. And the way the world is today, they can be forgiven for seeing “study hard and you will succeed” as a new version of “the old lie”.

In Greece, even professionals have lost income, pension, prospects. Their education does not protect them. Why study, if that is the truth? Their offspring have reacted accordingly: attainment is crashing in Greek schools. Even in UK, we have a generation who describe themselves as “lost”.

Today, a huge percentage of recent UK graduates are shelf-stacking in supermarkets or in similarly menial jobs. Around 20 per cent have no job at all. Few have real prospects, and all have huge debts. Many school-leavers find themselves unemployed, however well qualified. 

Educational achievement today is not the ticket to success it once was. Faced with law students, for example, now £40,000-plus in debt and with zero prospect of the career they imagined, it is hard to counter the view that they might just as well have gone fishing.

Let the authorities beat the schools for failure if they want to. But don’t let’s expect that to fix anything. The truth is that the education cannot succeed unless the young invest in it. And society at the moment offers them precious little reason to do that. And the remedy for that is far beyond the school gates.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and a former lecturer in psychology and child development.


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