Old age brings new resolve

29th January 2010 at 00:00

Recently, like many others, I considered some resolutions for the new year. 2010 will be particularly significant for me as it is when I reach the grand old age of 65 and retire. Do I hear cheering in some official quarters, expressing the hope that, at last, my critical voice will be silenced? Health permitting, I hope to disappoint them.

The first possibility was "to be kinder to animals and members of the inspectorate". Part of this would present no difficulty. I already like most animals and have a particular fondness for certain breeds of dog, notably golden retrievers and labradors, both of which, like myself, possess an equable temperament (though occasionally I wish I had more of the madcap energy of a springer spaniel).

But it would be much harder to extend my bonhomie to the inspectorate, a body which enjoys excessive power and influence, creates a great deal of unnecessary stress for teachers, and produces reports which are often dull, or badly written, or both.

The next option I toyed with was "never to become an education consultant when I retire". I rejected this on the grounds that it was too easy. A resolution has to present a challenge. I have long regarded consultants, in all forms, as the spawn of the devil, people who receive large fees for work that simply tells management what it wishes to hear, or else leaves a trail of mayhem in its wake.

In the latter case, the pattern is for sharp-suited and over-confident men and women to descend on an organisation, conduct a superficial survey, recommend major structural reform and depart without having to live with the consequences. Does this sound familiar? I have heard it alleged that people who call themselves "consultant" do so only because they are unable to spell the word "charlatan". But, as Francis Urquhart (played superbly by the late Ian Richardson in the television drama House of Cards) used to say: "I couldn't possibly comment."

I also thought it would be insufficiently testing to resolve "not to drift into a mellow old age". The prospect of nostalgic lunches with former colleagues or thrashing around a golf course with other ageing duffers may sound quite agreeable, but I know it is not for me. I need intellectual stimulation and so I hope to read more, write more and maintain my nuisance value. I shall, however, try to stop short of becoming a grumpy old man. Don't even think of suggesting that I have already failed on that performance indicator.

I finally settled on a resolution that I think presents sufficient challenge but also reflects my real interests. My passion is words - words used with clarity, with subtlety, with creativity, in ways that explain the human condition and inspire others. My resolution, therefore, is to celebrate those life-enhancing uses of language wherever I find them, an aim which sits well with the current emphasis on literacy. I shall, of course, continue to highlight sloppy and dishonest uses of language by politicians and officials.

It would be unreasonable to expect me to suppress my critical faculties entirely. After all, personality transplants are not yet available on the National Health Service.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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