Schools should act ethically

As a young teacher in the 1980s in charge of Economics A-Level I remember going to see the Headteacher of the Comprehensive school I taught at. We discussed the potential of the new sixth form intake and the likely results. To be frank, I said to him, if he wanted all top grades it would be no problem, but I wouldn’t be able to take pupil X or pupil Y.

“If you let me have a crack at it, however, I reckon we could help get them a reasonable grade and a chance to go to University if that’s what they want.”

Economics often attracted some of the more marginal candidates as it was a subject at which they hadn’t previously failed, never having studied it before.

The point was, I always thought my job as a teacher was trying to get pupils to achieve the best grade of which they were capable. If that failed I would accept that some of the blame was my teaching, but the student had their share of responsibility too. It would be unethical to exclude them just because they were unlikely to get a top grade, simply to improve the school’s results.

I thought we were there to serve the educational interests of the students not the vanity of the institution.

Fortunately my Headteacher agreed with me, and I continued to take students who didn’t have the greatest exam results at 16 but who I thought had the potential to develop and mature.

I may have been influenced by my personal story. At O-Level my grades weren’t the greatest, but at A-Level I far exceeded expectations and predictions and ended up as the first pupil from my school to get a place at Oxford.

When I became an MP in 2001, a former pupil of mine got in touch and copiously thanked me for helping her achieve a grade ‘C’ at A-Level, which she still regarded as a minor miracle. She had gone on to University and ended up managing one of the biggest rock bands in the world. I have no doubt that in some schools these days like St Olave’s she would have been kicked out, as I probably would have been.

Of course schools should be able to refuse exam entry to students who don’t do the work or fail to turn up, or obviously have no chance of passing. But to restrict entry only to those achieving grade B in Year 12 and force the rest to leave to protect the school’s position in a league table shows a loss of location of the moral centre of the purpose of education.

Tristram Hunt was widely ridiculed for suggesting the idea of a ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for the teaching profession when he was Shadow Education Secretary. I freely confess now, it was my idea as a way of trying to confront the ethical failure in education (including recent exam scandals) which has resulted from the pressure of narrowly defined league tables. If teachers, including Headteachers, could refer to a simply set of basic ethical principles about the purpose of education they would be empowered to refuse to go along with policies which start with a well-meaning desire to improve a school’s results for the benefit of all, and end up with the grotesque spectre of young people being expelled for achieving a mere grade C at A-Level.

As politicians we are as responsible for this development as anyone. I am sorry that when I was a Minister under Ed Balls that our idea of a broader Report Card on school performance was not implemented in time.

No one likes to see school issues playing out in the Courts. I hope that the publicity about the St Olave’s case triggers schools across the country to revisit the ethics of their admission and entry policies.

The Oath may have been a naff attempt to start a debate about how to empower the profession to reconnect to the basic principles of teaching as a vocation, but the question remains, what is the value of education without a clearly focussed moral centre?

Kevin Brennan is the MP for Cardiff West. He was a Secondary schools teacher between 1985-94 and served as Childrens Minister and Further Education Minister under Gordon Brown’s Labour Government. He was Shadow Schools Minster 2010-15 but writes here in a personal capacity