Ofqual error has us all jostling for exam jargon

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

How interesting to learn that to avoid using the word "error" when discussing exam results, qualifications regulator Ofqual has hired consultants to "produce a narrative for staff to use when speaking about reliability".

Eh? First, what's all this guff about narratives? Forget about replacing "error" - find another way of saying "producing a narrative". It's slimy and implies making stuff up, so it's a shame it didn't have a consultant in for that one. I imagine some Ofqual bod in a grey suit intoning, "Once upon a time, there were three Ofqual employees, who all wished they were eating porridge rather than drafting ambiguous, oblique reports about inconsistent marking."

Also, why was Ofqual replacing the word "error" anyway? Well, according to Dennis Opposs, head of standards, it was "too closely associated with culpability". Ah, rest in peace if you can, Dr Johnson, while we're mucking the dictionary about. And so near your birthday, too. "Error" now means, "It's OK, no one was to blame, I really, really can't explain how that happened, m'lud."

What an inconveniently honest word is "error". It reminds me of those students who plead, "It isn't my fault about my homework. I just forgot." What should I say? "Oh, that's fine. Take two merits. Have a chocolate."

The other thing that puzzles me is that Ofqual wanted a word to help them discuss "reliability". Again, it needed that consultant earlier, one to tell it that "error" is a close semantic cousin of "unreliability", not "reliability". Next, it'll be claiming that "success" is a synonym for "cock-ups" and we wouldn't want that, would we?

But it's not just Ofqual fudging things - schools do it too. When I had teenagers, before I was a teacher, I found the complexity of their school reports baffling. I could understand each word in isolation, but the way they were strung together, it didn't matter how hard I looked for concepts such as "she's doing well and we're pleased" or "she talks too much in lessons and needs to listen", I couldn't find them.

Then I started teaching. At one school, we used comment banks for reports. Then I realised why my children's reports were so inaccessible. Half the bank's phrases were euphemistic - "John utilises communication skills regularly during lessons and could stabilise his attention management" - and the other half were lifted from national curriculum criteria. My class reports ended up impersonal and strangely fragmented, as the comments linked together like bad knitting. If I remember rightly, the system wouldn't let us use paragraphs either. I would have given myself 310 for effort and put myself into detention if I'd written the reports.

Would I go back to "could do better", "average" and (as my Geography teacher wrote) "absolutely hopeless"? No. We should write more, and more politely, but retain the plain speaking.

Likewise, when marking pupils' work, it's clarity they need if they're to improve, not language only we (or Ofsted?) would understand. Having said this, I've adjusted my tone since switching from a boys' to a girls' school. Boys accepted "the structure is appalling" without offence, but I'd now soften it to "I would have liked more effort from you in planning this". And add a smiley.

But at least it's transparent. And truthful. And with no margin for error.

Fran Hill, English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.

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