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OK is as good as it gets

Politicians and curriculum planners should forget about mantra and hyperbole and stick to plain English, says Judith Gillespie

Intrigued by the headline "Tests harm writing skills" in the English section of The TES Scotland, I read on. I discovered that the English curriculum has writing organised into four triplets (yes four, not the more logical three, but then this is about literacy, not numeracy).

Anyway, the four triplets divide writing into four styles: to inform, explain and describe; to persuade, argue and advise; to analyse, review and comment; to imagine, explore and entertain. Apparently, and not surprisingly, schools are teaching youngsters the triplets in order to ensure that they pass the national tests, which are based on said triplets; for their part, youngsters find it difficult to produce writing that steps outside the narrow triplet descriptors.

The result is a decline in their writing skills and a stifling of imagination. The more prescriptive the test requirements, the less youngsters engage their own brains on the task in hand. Writing becomes as routine as stuffing envelopes, while we are all left to mourn the lost art of writing that informs, persuades and analyses as well as entertains.

I can just imagine the committee(s) that sat around devising the triplets; maybe they did wonder in passing if "inform" and "persuade" should be in the same triplet. They may even have toyed with the idea of quartets. There would have been hours of meetings at great cost in time and money; there would have been long arguments while the meanings of the different words were analysed. Concepts such as equality and inclusion would have been discussed before the formula was finally agreed. And then, once decided, everyone would have felt so proud of the neat, almost poetic, format that they had arrived at.

This process is, of course, not confined to England. In Scotland, think of the national priorities or the curriculum review. I am lucky: I know there are five priorities, but fortunately cannot remember what they are and my poster listing them has fallen off the wall; only the Blu-Tack remains.

However, I have heard plenty of professionals stating how this, that or the other action satisfies one or more specific priority. They seem to live and breathe national priorities, while the rest of us go off to the pub and engage in real life.

Then there are the four purposes of the curriculum for excellence which tend to get trotted out in a single mantra. This states that we want all young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Hard luck, then, on the youngsters who want to be confident learners or effective citizens, not to mention successful contributors. As for anyone who is merely a hard-working or, worse still, unsuccessful learner, they might as well not bother getting out of bed in the morning.

Educationists spend hours arguing about words and debate long and hard on the use of one particular word over another, and I am as guilty as the next. In the curriculum review group, I argued long and hard for "efficient" or "competent" learning rather than "enthusiastic" learning, on the grounds that I had never been an enthusiastic learner myself and had yet to meet many people who had. I lost the argument.

Was the argument ever worth engaging in, because words such as "efficient" or "enthusiastic" become just words? They sound good, mean something to a few, but absolutely nothing to the majority.

Imagine if the curriculum for excellence had said that its purposes were that young people should become OK learners, individuals, citizens and contributors. Actually, that would have been a very strong statement because "OK" is a pretty good place to be. OK covers both effective and efficient as well as adequate and competent. Yes, OK is seriously good; it's even OK. I think I'll start a campaign for OK education, and for moving away from mantra and hyperbole. It would stymie the politicians somewhat. Imagine Peter Peacock standing up and announcing that education was on track to being OK.

It would also restrict those in the media who like to harp on about how far politicians fall short of their over-vaunted targets. You can't get too many shock, horror headlines out of a shortfall on "OKness".

Meantime, I'll leave others to judge which of the four triplets (an oxymoron, if ever I heard one) this piece of writing satisfies; for my part, I seriously don't care.

Judith Gillespie is development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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