I remember one parents’ evening a year or two ago when I spent our precious five minutes carefully describing one sainted couple’s son’s learning and behaviour as carefully and sensitively as I could. This lad had a troubled time at school, and he spent so much of his time outside of lessons that he was called the “Corridor King”, so I wanted to say something positive, helpful and personal. I liked the kid, not that it matters, but I did.
“Yes,” they said, “But why isn’t he level six?” Inside I growled. Not because it wasn’t a reasonable question from a parent, but because to my mind, levels were a fraud, a charlatan’s fudge of assessment and magic; because his needs were far more complex and pressing than any goofy “next steps” mumbo jumbo; and because the reason he was at the level he was at, was because he was at the level he was at. You might as well ask, “Why aren’t you on top of the Eiger mountain?” Yet, of course, here we all are at sea level.
The difficulty often is that we have developed a verbal legerdemain, a crypto-language that attempts to describe the human experience of learning in the most inhuman of ways. Many others have written about this.
We talk about value-added, and sub-levels of progress (still, despite their dismissal) and learning skills. We’ve used this language often and long enough that parents use it too. The sickening thing is when you start to hear pupils use the argot: it’s horrible. Like seeing poodles dressed as long-dead US presidents, it’s unnatural.
If you want to see the difference, dig out your own report cards, if you’re sufficiently greybeard enough as I am. There the comments sizzle with expression and an often-damning honesty. Spades remain firmly spade-like in these mini-soap operas.
“Tom is lazy,” said one. “And he knows this.” Christ, you’d be teaching from a prison cell these days if you said that. “Tom can achieve a great deal with more persistent effort,” would be the contemporary pidgin. “He is a visual learner.”
I don’t suggest we woo such a bold and controversial tradition – there is much to be said for tact and manners. But it concerns me that the organic, extraordinary miasma of a child’s school experience is centrifuged, juiced and desiccated into language packets that are as portable and compact as spice jars on a rack.
If we speak only of levels, grade-point averages and other quantitative lassos, then we mustn’t be surprised when the parents learn to speak like we do, on the not unreasonable grounds that the language maps to the learning in a meaningful way.
We need to learn once again to be blunt, without being brutal; to be honest without being horrible; to be fearless enough to speak freely and fairly.
In other words: to be professional; to be trusted to say a hard word when it needs to be said, and to have our words taken seriously without them being seen as a trigger for a tribunal. And it starts with us, and with every conversation that we have from Monday to Friday.
Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71