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The Parable of the Lost Student

I believe in the parable of the lost sheep – it is a fantastic message that no one is beyond grace, no one should be written off. A number of years ago I re-enacted an educational version of it – a version that perhaps teachers up and down the land will empathise with. I literally went the extra mile to locate a lost student. I suspect many colleagues have similar stories. I'll get to what it taught me in a little while, but for now settle back, it's story time!

The Lost Student

Picture the scene if you will.  It is May – circa 2010 I forget the exact year - and one of my students is lost. Not literally of course because we are pretty sure where he is- at home in bed. Tomorrow is the exam. Will the lost student turn up? He hasn’t been to college for over two weeks in a year of intermittent attendance. We need to know so that he can be withdrawn if he isn't coming - he won't be included in our pass rates. A telephone conversation earlier in the week with his mother revealed that although there were minor health worries, he was well enough to be in and we would see him the next day, but he didn’t appear.

Hence I decide to take time out to ring him personally. We have 3 different numbers for our lost student: 2 mobiles and a landline. I rang all three without a response. I am getting some pressure from SLT to sort this and between myself and one of our pastoral team we are getting nowhere. Suddenly something snapped. Having availed myself of the services of Google Maps, I got into my car and headed for his house. I parked up in the heart of one of an area that only can be described as ‘interesting.’ Having kissed my car goodbye I headed down the street. Past the house with the couple shouting in the front garden, past the house with the large barking dogs and up the path. A light was on in the living room and (although I cannot be sure) a shadow seemed to move. I knocked several times - loud enough for the shouting neighbours to look but to no avail. Back to college to pass on the news to pastoral staff.  And for me back to the classroom to muddle through the lesson that I should have prepared whilst I was out on my travels.

              Fast forward 2 hours and my pastoral colleague has had success; they have found mum on the phone and been able to ring the student’s new mobile number. I get to speak to him. He assures me that he has been in all day and that no-one has called round. After a brief pantomime style argument about whether I really did knock on his door, I move the conversation on to tomorrow’s exam. He informs me that he intends to sit the exam. I ask him which topics are on the first paper. He gets 1 of them correct. (We have gone over this just a few times this year!) ‘I have done some revision’ he says. My pastoral colleague passes me a scribbled note to the effect of ‘can he pass? What do you think?’

The Moral Dilemma and the lessons

              Here lies the dilemma. He’s a reasonably capable student who with good attendance and effort could be a B/C grade candidate. But he has bombed on several timed assessments. Whatever he does will probably count against us in terms of value added, retention, (a measure peculiar to sixth form colleges) or achievement. It seems unlikely but there is a slight chance that he could pass. He’s also got 5 days to get his head around the paper 2 materials. We will take the chance; it’s the right decision for him. Not sure about us.

              As it happened he passed this AS exam but decided not to continue to A2. I wonder what we learn. Whilst it is undoubtedly right that we make every effort with all the sheep in our care, I think my story differs from the Biblical one in three key ways:

  1. Some sheep refuse rescue: In the Biblical story the sheep is probably glad to be rescued. Some of our students, like the old joke about the alcoholic drowning in the vat of whiskey, bravely fight off the rescuers. Still we reprint the notes they have lost, put on extra sessions for those absent etc. Would my student who assured me that it was his intention all along to come to the exam have made it without the phone calls? Somehow I doubt it.

  2. Are the 99 safe? In the Biblical story we are dealing with a very good shepherd who secures the 99 prior to looking for the one. When it comes to lost students I’m not sure the 99 are actually safe. In total I spent over two hours on this one student – just that day. In between I taught a slightly under prepared lesson whilst my mind was on other things. I wonder how often as teachers our focus on the minority who are lost and seem not to care for their own progress detracts from our work with the majority.

  3. Not realising who is lost: In the Biblical story it is obvious that the sheep is lost. The sheep itself knows it’s lost. Our students aren’t always that easy to read. The under confident student spends much of the year seeking attention and telling me how much they’re struggling but actually they’re basically fine. They just need to up their game a little. For others the confident ‘it’ll be fine, I’ll revise for the next assessment’ hides a sea of confusion sometimes coupled with erratic attendance as they try to ignore or avoid the reality of how lost they are. Our hardest job often is to work out in a class of 30 how lost various individuals are.


I don’t have any easy answers to the above. As teachers, we rightly try to do whatever we can to help a child succeed. But we also that same duty to the rest of each class; those who don’t shout as loud or don’t initially appear as lost.

I’m not convinced that the things I did 14-15 years ago were really my job - but I feel it ought to be someone’s job. But very few schools have the capacity to employ someone just to run after the lost sheep!

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