Words of a difference

16th April 2004 at 01:00
What would the current inspection system look like today had its one-time chief not been described as 'wild' by his French teacher? Emily Clark reports on the latest thinking about how language affects performance

Of all the criticisms that have been levelled at Chris Woodhead, "unbelievably deplorable" and "wild" are two he has really taken to heart.

But they do not refer to his career as former chief inspector at the Office for Standards in Education. These are descriptions of his performance in highland dancing and French given by his primary school teachers. Professor Woodhead believes that effective leaders use simple, personal and engaging language. Speaking at a conference for headteachers, he said: "I still do not know why my French teacher told me I was 'wild', but at least the comments were honest. What I do not like is vagueness. Generalisations do not give any individual, be it a child or a teacher, confidence.

"It is not good enough to write satisfactory on school reports."

Tim Brighouse, the London Schools Commissioner, has made similar observations and has urged educators to use inspirational language to challenge children. He favours ipsative assessment styles where you are measured against your previous best.

He said: "Since when do you pat your child on the shoulder and tell them they are really satisfactory?I have been trying to get 'ipsative' into the dictionary for years.

"It is very important that assessments encourage children to beat their previous best. We must also look at words like 'general', 'average', and 'non-teachers': no person should be 'non' anything."

Professor John West-Burnham, senior researcher at the National College for School Leadership, believes inspirational language is the difference between management and leadership.

He said: "Extending and enriching vocabulary is a crucial dimension of leadership and that is how effective heads and governors create a culture of shared values and understanding. Sophisticated language is determined by the way the head works with teachers and talks in assemblies. Every sport, club, card or board game has its own language which makes it meaningful to its players."

But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes language is not the sole responsibility of heads.

He said: "I think the Ofsted criteria are distinctly unhelpful and susceptible to differing interpretations. These words have a major impact and it is very difficult indeed to get away from the fact that they are in every day use. The buck does not stop with heads. They can take the lead but so much of this is outside of their control.

"We need to work with other agencies to deliver more effective language. I do not think we need NCSL to tell us how to make an effort."

Ofsted inspectors describe schools as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory and subjects as anything from "below average" to "well above average".

Professor Woodhead admits to feeling uneasy about the agency's vocabulary.

"Ofsted should be leading by example," he said. "But there is a problem: we need a frame of reference and some standard language to compare 24,000 schools. It is unfair to say this situation is directly comparable with a class of 30 children but nonetheless language filters down from the top. I wanted inspectors to develop their own vocabulary to bring judgments to life. The national college should be thinking about this."

Teachernet.gov.uk, an online resource developed by the Department for Education and Skills, advises teachers to save time and money with computerised report systems. On the subject of assessments it adds: "Draw up a scoring rubric outlining the criteria for good, bad or average performance on each specific goal and for each draft and final product in the portfolio."

But Dr John Marincowitz, head of Queen Elizabeth's school in Barnet, believes feedback to individual pupils cannot be prescribed. He allows staff at the boys' grammar school in north London to use computer programs to write reports. Heads of department are expected to upgrade the comment banks every term.

He said: "We need clear grade categories for public exam results but anything more than that should be left to teachers. When you try to create a one-size-fits-all set of communicators you address the mass but do no to justice to those at the top and the bottom.

"Phraseology is something you have to constantly work at. You need new and original language, particular to your institution, which is pitched just ahead of the game to avoid complacency. It is a constant and often onerous battle to keep reinventing language."

NCSL does not run specific modules for heads on how to communicate but some courses involve feedback on presentations. Heather Du Quesnay, chief executive of NCSL, does not think it can be taught.

She said: "Powerful communication comes from the heart; it happens when you feel passionately and are speaking with sincerity. But you can also learn ways of communicating more and less powerfully. Heads, governors and this college are aware of that and are constantly trying to find simple and memorable ways of communicating ideas.

"We would not want to use language like 'satisfactory' but sometimes we do.

Reports are often bland and impersonal and that is something we need to improve. But it is tough when someone asks you to be inspirational. It is wonderful when it comes but it cannot be expected as part of the daily routine."

Neil Davies, chairman of the National Governors' Council, said governors could do more to help heads communicate with staff and parents by avoiding the use of complex speech and unfamiliar acronyms such as SOC (schools organisational committee) and GAT (gifted and talented).

"Governors can take the lead by writing clearly in their policies, and putting together an annual report themselves so that people read it rather than file it in the bin. Even though there are a number of things we have to include by law we should try and make it interesting by avoidingconventional education speech," said Mr Davies.

Hazel Pulley, head of Caldecote primary in Leicester, has spent two years encouraging a positive language in her school through the concept of choice. She issued a list of appropriate words and phrases to all staff such as "Stop. You are making the wrong choice. Come on, let's turn it round" and "Stop. Remember in our school we are gentle."

These are now words she hears used by teachers, assistants, governors, cleaners, parents and children. For the first two weeks of each term all lessons and assemblies focus on friendships, relationships and communication.

If children behave badly they are given the opportunity to correct themselves and each day they start with a clean slate. A behaviour mentor works full time in the school which has 219 pupils aged three to seven.

Mrs Pulley said: "In the past I have worked in challenging schools and heard a lot of sarcasm from staff about children coming to school with baggage from their home lives. I want to work in a culture of respect and forgiveness.

"For children to say they have made the wrong choice is a huge statement which shows they are developing their own value system."

An Ofsted inspection in June noted that the school had excellent behaviour management even though attainment is below average.

Mrs Pulley added: "I would rather inspectors used more personal and creative words but I think that the message is getting through. Does standardisation matter if the school is creating an environment with a strong value system? Ofsted looked holistically at our school. We are laying the foundations for change."

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