Education Viewpoint: Euphemism, ambiguity and fudge

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The Independent Online
Ofsted inspection reports are worthy documents, but, on the whole, not well written. They are written by literate, professional educationists, who work hard during the inspections, come to agreed judgements, and then produce reports. More often than not, these puzzle or irritate the reader. Why? My belief is that these documents derive their dullness from a reliance on ESP, and I'm not talking about extrasensory perception.

First - E for euphemism. We live in an age in which one can publish, without fear of fine or imprisonment, material that is obscene, vulgar, tasteless, crude or refined, direct or opaque, and yet educationists seem to be coyly addicted to roundabout expression.

If, for example, you read many of the reports published over the past year, you will not find mention of clever children. They are always referred to as more able. More able than what, or whom? They are more able than the children who are not very clever, who are always referred to as less able.

Sometimes, the euphemism verges, ludicrously, on the politically correct, as in, 'Girls are generally achieving higher standards than boys. This is reflected in the quality of work at key stage 4, where boys are often inappropriately challenged and allowed to remain relatively unresponsive in lessons.' The author cannot bear to say that at key stage 4, some teachers are failing, by setting boys the wrong level of work and letting them get away with idling in the classroom.

Next, S for subjectivity. A paradoxical subjectivity informs the reports. It is paradoxical because Ofsted's Framework of Inspection seems to demand more objectivity than was ever demanded of HMI in the now defunct 'full inspections': yet registered inspectors, knowing this, must make judgements that are inevitably subjective, and the tension makes for uneasy reading.

We find, in a section on mathematics, 'Relative to national norms, 50 per cent of the pupils achieved average or better standards.' This means nothing much more than average pupils are fairly average. Or, on history, 'When given the opportunity, they (the pupils) are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning.' Now this might mean something or it might not. In any evaluative report, statements should be not only evaluative but also unambiguous. That one is neither. Such statements are made because they are demanded by the rules of the game.

Each inspector has to have in mind or at least show that some attention has been paid to 120 items under the heading of 'evaluation criteria' (that use of a noun as an adjective is itself a technique for emphasising 'objectivity').

None of this invalidates Ofsted inspections. Almost all registered inspectors and members of inspection teams, apart from the one lay inspector on each team, are either ex-HMI or local authority advisers and inspectors. On an inspection, every one of them makes judgements that are subjective, but generally valid because they are based on the totality of each individual's very extensive experience of the education system.

Whether this can be made to last, in the absence of a national inspectorate, is another question. But one thing is clear. You cannot achieve objectivity simply by scattering percentages over the page, or by simply stating that a subjective (and probably valid) judgement is an objective one because it relates to a pre-specified criterion.

Third, there is P for paralogism. Many of the statements which display a false logic are, I am sure, not intended to deceive. They may be the result of hasty editing, or an attempt to summarise in one sentence a dozen individuals' views. But some of them make strange reading.

In a section on equality of opportunity, we come across the following: 'Except for theory at GCSE in physical education, lessons are taught in single gender groups. This gives female pupils a more varied and educationally sound programme than male pupils.'

Leaving aside the stylistic jolts - the use of the word 'gender' rather than 'sex' (more euphemism?), the 'female pupils' and 'male pupils', instead of 'girls' and 'boys', the rickety syntax of the second sentence - and having checked the section in the report on physical education, I cannot make the passage yield logical sense.

The factors of ESP could be thought of simply as flabby writing, rectifiable by more rigorous editing. But I have a gloomy suspicion that they are induced by the nature of privatised inspection, which depends for its inspectors on hundreds of educationists who are intelligent and committed professionals, but who do not share a common set of views or a common occupational culture, and who must, therefore, rely more on the Handbook of Inspection than on their individual experiences.

The author is an education consultant and former HMI.

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