Teacher bias: We are all guilty

Written by: Chloe Testa | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

PP, SEN, EAL – when we awarded our teacher-assessed grades this summer, did we award them to statistics and acronyms, or to individual learners? Chloe Testa looks at teacher bias and how we can finally begin to close the gaps


Teacher bias – it is a term that raises the hackles of most educators and will often result in some strongly worded responses along the lines of it being an offense to the individual teacher’s professionalism, their years of practice, and their character.

As educators, we have taken an oath (albeit a hidden one – maybe we should have some form of Hippocratic Oath) to expand the minds of all students and ensure that they become the best they can be, not just academically, but emotionally, mentally and socially.

So I understand where this anger towards even the slightest suggestion of bias comes from. But to outright refuse to accept that bias exists within practitioners is to forget one of the biggest things about us – we are human.

Many of us will have read author John Agard’s work – Half Caste, Checking Out Me History, and Flag. Some of us have probably taught it at some point in our careers. We have discussed his focus on accidental or unthinking racism and colonial hangovers.

However, when we teach this, all do not assume it is talking about us. We are the educated elite, we are connected to the world and the youth, and we are thinkers; we have expanded into a realm of unimpeded equality – a utopian bliss.

Nope.

We are all guilty of these biases.

I am not saying this makes us bad people, or horrific practitioners, or that we should all hand back our teaching degrees now. But we do need to realise that these biases exist, and stop pretending that we have not all had the same thoughts at some point or another.

We are consistently told by the data gurus that we have certain cohorts of students which are underperforming. We know them and their acronyms well: PP, SEN, EAL, HPaG, LPaG, boys, BAME. And because our time is so stretched across the school year, it becomes easier to group the students by these factors and target them specifically.

It is not as though these biases are unfounded. Nobody woke up one day and decided that Group X would be the sacrificial lamb in the great exam wheel.

Over the years, we have seen that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds struggle to produce grades in line with their peers; SEN students are consistently not achieving the same grades, nor are EAL – and don’t even get me started on the gender achievement gap.

Thus we do everything that we can for our students. We prepare home learning packs for those who are absent a lot. We run intervention sessions and target who will attend. We offer additional English classes for students who are EAL or have come to us with lower literacy.

We have workshops and Easter revision sessions offering participation pizza and prizes to our disadvantaged students.

And yet the results do not seem to change too much, year-in, year-out. Indeed, were we surprised by the news that the GCSE attainment gap between rich and poor, based on 2019 data, has stopped closing? It now stands at 18.1 months, just as it did in 2015 (Hutchinson et al, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

Maybe this is not necessarily a reflection of us, and more a reflection of how a one-size-fits-all system does not work. Perhaps, requiring all students to sit a series of exams across a four-week period, in high-pressure, high-intensity environments, without the help and support they have been receiving across however many years of education just isn’t working? Radical thought.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and exam cancellations, we were asked last academic year to judge and rank our students based on what they would have got in the exams had they sat them. We might well be asked to do something similar next summer…

So, who is most likely to suffer in this kind of process? The groups who have historically not achieved as highly as others.

When we assigned our grades, we relied on what we have seen in assessment and in class. And in the back of our minds, even though we know we will not be looking at Progress 8 and other data, we are subconsciously aware of that magic number. Well why wouldn’t we be? We have been beaten over the head with it so much, it is an almost Pavlovian response.

However, perhaps our awarding of grades as part of the response to the pandemic is a good thing. Certainly, it proved to be the case given that many of the biases I am writing about here came to the fore in the government’s ill-fated and now infamous “mutant algorithm”, which seemed to penalise high-achieving children from disadvantaged schools.

We need to award grades not to statistics and acronyms, but to individual people. We know these people well and we need to eliminate any thought of them as being part of a group.

We cannot be thinking along the lines of student X is PP and EAL so we can say that they would obtain such and such. Instead it needs to be student X has produced this level of work consistently. End of.

When we focus on the students as individuals, perhaps we then can remove some of this inherent bias. It is not a case of forgetting these aspects – an SEN student has a need that must be addressed and supported, we cannot forget or ignore that. But this is just one aspect.

Of course, there could be a more sinister side to the idea of teacher bias. Maybe the widening gulf between pupils is a reflection on us. A reflection that we have wrongly believed education to be a panacea rather than what it truly is: a microcosm of the society we live in.

We throw so much into our lessons, our extra-curricular work, our support programmes and our students, yet the gap between groups is widening. The attainment gap at the end of primary school now stands at 9.3 months and has increased for the first time since 2007. It is feared this may signal a future widening of the gap in secondary education (Hutchinson et al, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

And as it widens we divide ourselves and our time more and more, offering support to this group while taking this group on a field trip and broadening the cultural capital of this group with a trip to the theatre until we become so stretched we are at the point of being ineffective.

Charles Dickens believed education was the salvation for class divide. While the idea of class may have diminished, the divides between the haves and the have-nots (financially at least) have bloomed.

Perhaps the real problem is not our negative student bias, but our rosy bias – or view – of the benefits of education and our blindness to the need to engage more broadly.

Perhaps one of the most important things we can do moving forward is to improve our connections with our communities. Schools do not exist in isolation, they are products of the community they are part of, and if we reach out and serve these communities more effectively, might we then start to see the gaps closing?


  • Chloe Testa is head of English at The Hollyfield School in Surbiton.


Further information & resources

  • Hutchinson, Reader, Akhal: Education in England: Annual Report 2020, EPI, August 2020: https://bit.ly/3ldR60N
  • SecEd: GCSE learning gap stands at 22.7 months for the most persistently disadvantaged, SecEd, August 2020: https://bit.ly/2FjAJzL


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