Less of the purple prose

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Alan Combes wishes he could be more honest in his pupils' records of achievement. Unaffectionately referred to as "the wine list" (because of its purple folder), the National Record of Achievement comes into its own at this time of year. Compared with all the other bureaucracy and form-filling that classroom teachers have had to tolerate in recent years, this is one of the most despicable.

Between November and Easter, I am required to write comments on Year 11 students. I am either their form tutor, subject teacher - or both - and I feel I know them well. Don't get me wrong - I'm not shirking the job. I'm all in favour of recording my knowledge about them and a standardised document is clearly of help to all concerned. It is the nature of the beast rather than the beast itself I despise.

Recently, a local "captain of industry" told me how impressed he was by records of achievement and that he'd recently taken on youngsters with extremely good records.

"They would have," I told him, "teachers are only allowed to enter positive comments."

He was surprised. "What if the youngster I've employed has regularly been late for school?"

I told him the chances were that either no comment would be made on the NRA, or that the lateness would be played down.

I wish we could be more honest. I am not seeking a licence to lambast young people and I understand that these are, after all, records of achievement; any teacher worth their salt tries to see some good in even the most negative pupils. But I also wish to record student achievement in such a way that those looking at the NRA get some idea of the student's quality.

"John has followed a two-year GCSE course and has shown some mastery of the skills of essay writing and proved himself capable of understanding many elements of English literature" isn't a record of anything so much as a cop-out. Achievement is about quality even more than quantity and there's not much scope for that in the present approach to NRA.

I wish to say things like "Jennifer could have achieved so much more with a greater commitment" as a way of recording her intelligence, but letting the reader know that she has simply not done the work.

Being truthful in this way is fairer for our pupils and makes the recording of achievement more valuable for higher education and industry.

The present method whereby we observe political correctness and remain strictly impartial can only result in the bleakest of futures. Not only is the final NRA document so anodyne that a wine list makes attractive reading beside it, but, like all inflated currencies, it will become worthless.

Our pupils will see it for the sham it is. Conscientious and hard-working students will recognise that it's not worth the paper it's written on; miscreants and shirkers will know that their shortcomings have been glossed over in what amounts to a skivers' charter.

Alan Combes is head of English at Pindar School, Scarborough

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