If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Words I Hate

It's not news, and others have covered the story already, but there was one thing about this one that made my blood boil.

Ofsted have been failing some of the country's top independent schools - not because of poor results, because the results are generally outstanding, but because the schools haven't been keeping up with the box-ticking exercises that they have been charged with. Things like:
  • keeping CRB check documents in a separate location, rather than a central file
  • not having a specific statement on 'behaviour management' in their school policies (perhaps because at the schools concerned, good behaviour is assumed to be the norm)
  • not making parents aware that they can have sight of a copy of the school's plan to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 2002
and so on. You could summarise it by saying that the schools were doing the right things, but in a non-approved way.

The one that make me choke on my cornflakes was:
  • Children have "not been taught how to play appropriately" because at break and lunchtimes they "often run around the small area shouting and letting off steam".
The suggestion that children running about at break time is a bad thing is ludicrous. When I was at school, running about and shouting at break time was what breaks were for. I don't think I could have sat through a day of lessons without at least three opportunities to run about, climb, shout, form a gang, disband a gang, torment a few girls and do a deal on some marbles I just happened to have about my person.

But it's that word 'appropriately' that makes me want to chew the carpet and hit someone.

It's such a common usage these days that no-one probably thinks about what it means any more. If you try to unpick the meaning of the word in this sentence, it is saying that there are approved ways of playing, ones which fit all our preconceptions, and that doing anything different is somehow disobeying an agreed and sensible principle. It's a pompous and self-righteous word, one which says that I know better than you do what is good for you.

I don't mind the word itself. If I am ill, I want my doctor to prescribe me an appropriate medicine, that is one that is designed to do the job. If I am in the market for a new car, I would listen to advice on what model is appropriate for my needs. But when people start talking about laughter at a joke being 'inappropriate', what they are saying is not that the joke isn't funny (when laughter would be inappropriate), but that you shouldn't find it funny. A whole different concept. By using 'appropriate' in this way, you are saying that your opinions or views or prejudices are normal, mainstream and educated, with the implication that if you disagree, you are odd, badly brought-up, or too thick to tell the difference between good and bad.

It's the same trick an advertiser uses when they say "clever people buy Snibbo." You buy the product (or adapt your behaviour) to fall in line with what someone else thinks is good and proper. It plays on the desire to conform.

So children playing like - well, children - is 'inappropriate'. What would they have them do? Sit in the same classroom and do homework? Get the chairs in a circle and conduct a session of enlightened self-criticism? Read a nice book? (Appropriate author and content, of course.)

When it was Her Majesty's Inspector of Schools, they were checking that teaching and learning were up to standard, and a good thing too. It seems that, when they find a school where the teaching and learning are exemplary, they have to find trivia to criticise.

Because they must find something to criticise, mustn't they? We can't have private schools being successful, after all.


  1. I am afraid this is the backwash from the current mania for 'standards' and 'certification' of everything. ISO-ing this and IIP-ing that is a good game - lots of BMW sales depend on them.

    The really fantastic thing is they all measure compliance with the standard and not at all whether the thing being assessed actually works.

    So in the weird world of 'standards' and 'performance indicators', the compliance priesthoods see it as entirely logical to fail a school that works. They don't care that it works - they care that it does not comply. Common sense and professional subjective judgements (often relyiing on that other outdated commodity, experience) are banished - then you can have simple box tickers running the show. Perfect.


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