When Things Go Wrong

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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What do you do when you make a mistake?

There are times when we drop clangers and make a mess of things. In school, these are not life and death situations so no harm done, right?


If we are talking about safeguarding errors then, yes – lots of harm could be done.

If we are talking about a lesson where key information for an exam has been badly taught and riddled with mistakes then, yes – a few dropped marks will make a world of difference.

Do we know what to do when things go wrong?


You might teach something with good intentions but later realise that you were mistaken. It could be that you passed on some faulty knowledge or taught a misconception. You might have given the incorrect advice or worse, made something up or had a guess.

If you make a mistake ‘live’ in a lesson and you realise you’ve got yourself in a muddle then you can, and should, back-track sharpish and correct yourself. We have all said something like, “Just ignore what I’ve said and scrap that.”

Sometimes we don’t realise we’ve got in a pickle until someone else points it out. This could be a pupil, teaching assistant or observer. None of us want to lose face but accepting you have made an error is important.

  • If you have had a lesson observation and the feedback you get highlights a mistake you’ve made what do you do?
  • If you have lesson observation feedback and it is reported that your teaching assistant has taught key concepts in a muddle, what next?
  • If one of your school policies is out of date and contains inaccuracies, what happens if this impacts negatively on health and safety around the school?

Recognising and report errors at an early stage, so that lessons can be learned quickly is key, but what systems do we have in place for being up front and truthful?

Duty of Candour

In medicine, there is something called the professional duty of candour which says that doctors, nurses and midwives have a professional duty to be open and honest with patients, colleagues and employers when things go wrong and the patient suffers harm or distress as a consequence. It is a statutory obligation.

Teaching has no equivalent which is one of the many reasons why we are seen as a semi-profession but I think a professional duty of candour would translate to us admirably. Being open and honest is a core value and it is linked inextricably to integrity and being a professional.

If we make a mistake then we need to be candid, come clean and say what it is we’ve done. The medical world is full of errors and mistakes and a fair amount gets hidden or is easily covered up. That’s the same in many professions.

The duty of candour can’t prevent dishonesty but it acts as a powerful requirement and responsibility to do the right thing and try to get things right the first time. If we don’t then it is our duty to make amends.

If we get things ‘wrong’ and deliver teaching that isn’t up to scratch for whatever reason or find that we are at fault within our systems, procedures and advice, then we need to apologise to pupils and parents.

Say Sorry

An apology within the medical profession is expected to include a) what happened b) what can be done to deal with any harm caused and c) what will be done to prevent someone else being harmed. This is verbal and written.

Learning curves and learning lessons are part and parcel of any job but not every job will acknowledge mistakes, apologise, correct errors and take steps to ensure others don’t suffer. We can cause harm too so we need to be honest about it.

Our duty to be open and honest should match the medical profession as this encourages a learning culture and helps others within our schools from making the same mistakes and avoiding our own near misses.

Teaching really could do with its own version of the duty of candour because we would be stronger for it.

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