My worst student

Today I’ve been grumpily following the Same-Sex Marriage Bill debate, contemplating my thesis corrections and pouring acetic acid into my sore ear so I have to admit, I’m not in the best of moods. And then I saw that the Times Higher Education decided to encourage academics to share their stories of their worst students on twitter. Aside from the obvious problems about professionalism and ethics, I don’t like the sneering.

You see, I was someone’s worst student.

Not in university – I’d mostly sorted myself out by then – but in sixth-form. I was doing an A-level in something I’d previously been good at and for which I was in the top set at GCSE, but at A-level my grades plummeted from As to Es. I couldn’t understand the material – I tried so hard and it constantly defeated me. I tried reading around the subject; I tried talking myself through it; I tried just knuckling down and memorising it. It slipped away from me, no matter what I tried or how hard I tried. It’s a horrible feeling to be so utterly powerless – to feel like your intellect has abandoned you, that whatever you try you’re going to fail, that you are stupid and worthless and wasting everyone’s time. It felt like being dropped into a world where the rules were opaque and all-powerful and I was constantly one crucial step behind. Every lesson was an ordeal, something to just survive for the next two hours and, eventually, to resent.

Naturally, the teacher and I loathed each other. He’d taught me when I was actually good at this stuff and in retrospect, probably couldn’t understand why I was suddenly so appallingly bad at it. If I was in his position and a student had suddenly gone from being one of the best in the class to the very worst, I would have sought help for this student. He didn’t. Instead he alternately ignored me – it was a very results-focused school and I was clearly not going contribute to his clutch of As – and bullied me. Because I was 17 and a bit of a twat, I made it quietly clear that I resented him every bit as he resented me. One day I snapped and told him that I wished I could drop this subject (I was very polite in my twattishness!). The next day, my Head of Year pulled me into her office and berated me for hurting his feelings.

I threw up every morning before school from the sheer anxiety of once more stepping into that classroom and once more, being utterly, helplessly adrift.

I have never, ever forgotten that feeling of being so totally lost. Not when I found a subject I loved, not when I got a First for my BA, not when I graduated from my masters, not when my examiners shook my hand after my viva, and especially not when teaching.

I’ve taught students who were uninterested, resentful and hungover – it’s one of the problems of teaching a compulsory Language module when most of the students would rather be doing Literature. I’ve occasionally got frustrated when marking. I know I don’t have much experience, but I hope I never get worn down by it. I hope I create an atmosphere in my seminars where students can make mistakes, test ideas that might not work or admit that they don’t understand something. I hope I can be sensitive to the students who struggle, and I hope I know when I’m out of my depth. I hope I never belittle or sneer at students – not when they frustrate me, not when they apparently don’t try, not when they appear to be hopelessly bad at something. I hope I am respectful and compassionate to the ones who resent me. I hope I am patient when it matters.

As an academic, we tend to be working in an area we love and that we’re good at. We’ve probably never been crushingly bad at something we now teach. Given the kind of grades we’re expected to get to enter a degree programme, then a Masters, then a PhD, we may never have been crushingly bad at any academic subject. I, with my E in that A-level, somehow sneaked in. I’m not proud of that grade, but the harsh lessons I learnt in that classroom have shaped my teaching forever.

Other posts:
Caroline Magennis: On Teaching
Kirsty Rolfe: Talking teaching on Twitter (and talking nicely to students)

The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.


The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.