When did teachers start to think that all children can’t succeed?


I regularly see tweets on Twitter proclaiming that “All can succeed” and learning should not be limited for any student and from a few years ago “Every child matters”. To some extent I include any ‘Growth Mindset’ references in this.

These annoy me. I’ve never thought any differently, and I have to assume that all teachers have at some point in their lives, thought the same. I believe that all students in front of me can and will learn whilst in my classroom. No excuses. No growth mindset needed; they will. And everything I do will support this expectation.

 So, it leads me to ask when did some teachers start to NOT believe these things? Why have they been highlighted as so important that teachers are pronouncing them almost as though they are controversial views? When did teachers stop thinking that all the children that they teach can learn/achieve and/or make progress?

We have to start with an assumption; when someone becomes a teacher they think all children are the same in terms of being able to be taught  or at least believe that all students, regardless of any subgroup they may fall in to, can learn.If not, why would you bother becoming a teacher?

I want to consider what might be happening inside education that means that these tweets are favourited a thousand times instead of ignored as a basic principle that doesn’t need a tweet, a bit like “You need to air to breathe”.


I haven’t been involved in teacher training for a while now. Is there something happening in training that is giving teachers the impression that all students can’t learn or achieve? In particular, how are the follow points presented to new teachers?

This term has become a bit of an angst for teachers. It’s developed a sense of foreboding as something than can never be done properly and usually takes hours and hours of time to prepare. Could the concept of differentiation have made teachers believe that because all students are different and we have to cater individually for them, that some cannot achieve? There is no differentiated intervention that will work for every individual?

Use of data

Could the large amount of data teachers are given, give teachers the impression that some children won’t succeed? If they fall into so many categories whether it be SEN, PP, LAC etc, then maybe they are impossible to teach? Or their learning will be limited in some way?

Alternatively, there has been a pressure on teachers to create data to track students and compare progress of groups. This in itself has given the impression that there are groups that aren’t achieving or progressing, rather than looking at individuals. It then follows that if a teacher happens to have a large group of these students in their class, then they may believe that they may not be able to achieve or make progress compared to other students. Has our grouping of students given some teachers the belief that some students aren’t as ‘good’ as others?

The concept of progress

The concept of progress has been skewed and oversimplified into sublevels. At GCSE the notion of probabilities has  dominated what equates to progress, this means other less measurable forms of progress is either not seen by the teacher or in worse cases disregarded by the teacher. This is also blurred by setting “challenging targets” rather than looking at individual students and what their own challenges may be. Sometimes challenging targets see to be more aimed at the teacher to achieve with a class than what an individual student can achieve. Has all of this meant that some teachers don’t see the value of progress achieved by all students in its many forms? If it doesn’t track on a progress spreadsheet then it doesn’t exist or matter? If it isn’t a ‘C’ or above it isn’t worth anything and thus worthless?

Experience of children

Or perhaps these teachers went into teaching believing all students can learn but have been faced with students who don’t seem to want to learn? They don’t seem to want to listen to everything the teacher has to say or do what the teacher tells them to do so, in the teacher eyes cannot learn or be taught.

Vulnerable groups & targeted intervention

Has the practice of intervening with groups of students created its own issues? I remember when I first started teaching that people always spoke about “boys” and how they underachieved and there were courses and books that told you how to redress the balance. Was it the public declaration of these vulnerable groups a self fulfilling prophecy? Did it put into teachers’ minds that boys indeed, could not achieve?


I will admit I love teaching sets but as I’ve previously said I’ve never believed or said these things about students I haven’t allowed the concept of setting to change my practice and beliefs. However is there a chance that some teachers have been influenced by the use of setting so much that they believe that particular sets. Have more chance of learning or are more able to make progress? This is the core argument against setting and may well hold true with those who have the attitudes to achievement and progress I’m arguing against.

Blurring of behaviour with ability to learn

Finally, I think this is a strong contender. Does a child’s behaviour impact a teacher’s perception of whether they can learn or make progress? If a child does not follow what you tell them, do their homework, follow classroom rules then are their learning capabilities prejudged? I’ve seen this happen. Teachers who struggle to control a class conflate this with their learning capability. Is this why many challenging schools, in terms of behaviour also get poor results? 


4 thoughts on “When did teachers start to think that all children can’t succeed?

  1. Thank you for this blog!! I think that you underestimate the unconscious prejudices that affect people and which it is easy to fall sway to. ITT seems to have a lot to answer for in terms of uncritical teaching of pedagogy – why no Gramsci with A S Neill? I also think that one can’t get away from the fact that there has been an embedding of the idea that academic education is only for some not all, and that children from poorer backgrounds do not fall into that some.

    I’m still trying to make sense of my experiences as a child and as a teacher – I honestly never had any barriers and yet I see them as a teacher. I have struggled repeatedly to come to terms with it and in the end I just don’t think I can. Primary schools in particular have such a lack of diversity and the pressure to conform, compounded by Ofsted, is so great that no amount of producing results, happy children and parents matter. I think that ethics seem to have gone out of the window as moral relativism has come in.

    Indeed I heard a reception teacher proclaim that boys would rather be outside playing than making marks or writing – can this really be true or are perceptions affecting teaching? It has long been known that teacher attitude has a huge impact on children. I also believe that it is true that we are teaching morality, even if we don’t think we are, by the things that we do.

    One of the most troubling things in primary education at least, is the complete lack of willingness to acknowledge those who defy stereotypes, how and why they do. Are these children really outliers?

    Is it possible to go through the education system and do as well as possible, come out the other end and believe that you were given the best education regardless of who you are? Yes – but it seems like I am in a minority compared to my peers and that is the sad reality of it.

  2. I think ofsted have a lot to answer for in terms of identifying groups of pupils who are ‘at risk’ of not making ‘expected’ progress. In my school we have to submit data every half term and look at progress of certain groups eg Sen, eal, pp etc etc. why should this matter? All children will make progress, some more than others, during the course of their education.

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