We shouldn’t support students

We all know that within limits it is possible to support, coach, cajole and even nag students to get through our assessments. To what end?

When I taught on social work courses, on which the majority of other tutors were former social workers, they were often exemplary tutors. They brought all their professional skills to bear in counselling and supporting students, and were enormously sensitive to their difficulties and any form of discrimination to which they might potentially be subject. Also true to their professional background, they acted as advocates for their "clients". So it was that our assessment boards were interminable affairs, as tutors produced reams of evidence of extenuating circumstances to argue that students who had failed, or failed to submit work, should proceed to the next year of the course, or be granted extensions to produce the required work for completion.

More recently, the Director of Social Services for the London Borough of Haringey admitted to the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié (a child killed by her aunt and partner who were suppose to be looking after her) that some of her staff had not read the Departmental policies and procedures on child abuse because, although qualified, they could not read very well. [Primary Source reference here see pp 77-78]

As someone said (sorry, despite my usual academic pedantry, I can't reference this);

    "I'm all for students being supported and being given the benefit of the doubt, as long as my doctor/dentist/airline pilot/plumber didn't learn that way!"

I was criticised severely for telling the students at the start of the course that I was not so much interested in their welfare as in the welfare of their future clients.

The problem with "supporting" students is that in many — probably most — cases it does not work. It merely defers their ultimate failure: or of course it results in collusion between the staff and their incapable students to "dumb down" the course so that they do pass, with a devalued qualification which potentially costs employers a great deal of money to compensate for, and in some cases costs livelihoods and lives.

Because we are face-to-face with students, we tend to have sympathy for them (not to mention all the other pressures concerned with retention and achievement statistics). Few people would argue with a degree of moderate flexibility to accommodate illness or a close bereavement, but there is no reason to be any more accommodating than an average employer. Indeed, since by definition half the employers out there are worse than average, perhaps we ought to be tougher.

Unlike most courses in our institution, the journalism diploma has no system for allowing deferrals of assignments: in journalism, the deadline is absolute — if you can't make it, you don't deserve to be a journalist.

Any student support which takes account of "exceptional circumstances" is elevating the interests of the individual student above those of standards, and given that we are ultimately in the business of serving the interests of society as a whole, this is unacceptable.

Equal Opportunities

All this goes a fortiori for that great shibboleth — "equal opportunities". If we unpack this notion, it suggests that students who, for whatever reason, start at a disadvantage, should have the same opportunities to achieve a qualification as those who are not similarly handicapped.

There are of course problems about the definition of "handicap" (I am using the term in the politically-correct sense of "disadvantage inflicted by society on those who do not conform to its socially-constructed norm"). The conventional wisdom includes;

As the Banton model suggests, the conventional assumption is that one should not discriminate between people for reasons they can't help. What about being thick? Education is necessarily about discriminating. Phillips (1996) uses the caucus race from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as an epigraph to her book, as a cautionary example of what happens when this principle is abandoned.

Boorstin (1970) foresaw this many years ago with his satire on the "new democracy" in US universities, which proposed that all students should be awarded an "E.Q." or "Ethnic Quotient" which could be used as a scaling device to adjust grades in proportion to the amount of disadvantage (in this case simply from race) which the student would have experienced.

Ridiculous — but what is the basis for rejecting discrimination on some grounds, but accepting it in the case of intelligence? And, of course, if one does not accept that, one is left with the situation described by Tom Lehrer in the preamble to his song, It makes a fellow proud to be a soldier (with thanks to John Pearson of London South Bank University for an accurate version, and to Sean for correcting the link):

"And, the usual jokes about the Army aside, one of the many fine things one has to admit is the way that the Army has carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion, in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, and color, but also on the grounds of ability."

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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