Why I will neither label nor be labelled

I refuse to label children. I have been happy to accommodate, to compromise what I thought were immutable principles during my brief career as a teacher: some of them were, frankly, naive. But I won’t replace NC levels with a “year-equivalent” statement in my pupils’ books. 

I will assess them according to well thought-through descriptions of what we should see in a year group. I will share those descriptions with pupils, expressed in language that they can understand and with examples that are meaningful to them. I will explain to my pupils that I need to have evidence of this feature or that skill. I will tell them that unless I see examples, I can’t vouch for their ability to use a particular aspect of Maths, say, or English. And I will tell them, joyfully, what I can see.

Together we will agree what’s most pressing for them to work on. Job done, targets set – and then I’ll plan, teach, mark and evaluate accordingly. I’ll be there to support them; I’ll celebrate their successes; I’ll be on their backs if they’re taking it easy. My school agrees with me: that’s one of the reasons I like them so much.

It’s how I used to manage and help to develop people. It’s how I was accredited as a management consultant. It’s how I used to assess project managers. It’s how I qualified as a teacher. 

It’s how I taught swimmers at a highly competitive swimming club. They had their galas to tell them if they could win or not; I was there to teach them HOW. We used to say, “If you look into another lane, you’re likely to lose” and always emphasise that what mattered was their Personal Best. Ask any competitive swimmer: the medals fill their drawers and hang from their shelves; the PBs are their over-riding obsession.

Labels may work for some pupils; they didn’t work for me. I thought I was rubbish at Maths and gave up on any hope of studying sciences (I love numbers and their patterns and have now overcome my fear of them). I thought I was “the cream of the cream” in everything else at 14 and coasted until I crashed into some mediocre GCEs and A levels. 

And then I learnt to love learning for its own sake. I craved my tutors’ feedback, monopolised them (choosing courses where I was sometimes the only student in the whole of London University). Through tough, challenging feedback from tutors such as Professor David Carpenter, who told me in no uncertain terms how flabby my essays were, and critical encouragement from Charles and Anne Duggan, I achieved a near-perfect First.

The grade itself was the worst part of my degree. Once again I was labelled. In those days, far fewer students were awarded firsts. My mates, with their two-ones and happy Desmonds, looked at me strangely. I hadn’t a clue what it meant, what it made me or what I should do. So I started a PhD because that’s what you do when you’re brilliant, isn’t it?

I failed. For a year I pretended that I was able to conduct rigorous research and that I would find an original idea to pursue. I was too lazy, too fond of coffee and company, too unfocused. In October 1987 I found myself stacking shelves in a shop in Covent Garden, on my way up a very winding staircase towards a career.  I will write about this, in a separate post.

Labels confine. Labels don’t motivate, any more than glittery stickers. They are the flip side of the ‘growth mindset’ and even less evidence-based than critics suggest Carol Dweck’s work to be. 

I welcome Ofsted’s clarification of its approach. Labelling a teacher based on an observation is neither sensible nor practical. I would argue that publicly labelling a school ‘inadequate’ or even ‘outstanding’ is a dangerous thing to do. The recent suicide of a Head Teacher after her school was judged inadequate, following on from Helen Mann’s suicide in 2013 as her school faced losing its outstanding status, should have us asking, is there another way of improving our children’s outcomes?

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