Watch out, Rees-Mogg: schools have style guides, too

Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued a draconian style guide, which he expects staff members to follow. Bernard Trafford sees why schools might be tempted to do the same

Bernard Trafford

Person correcting essay with red ink

Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq., M.P. (as he prefers to be addressed), is a Marmite politician. While ardent Brexiters and ERG sympathisers find his urbanely combative style endearing, his opponents declare it intolerable. Whether this is down the man or to his politics is perhaps hard to identify, but there appear to be few who, when asked about him, aren’t ready to get off the fence one way or the other.

Rewarded with a high office of state for his loyalty to the cause of no deal (oops, revealing my Remain bias here), his first act as leader of the Commons was to issue to his department a draconian style guide, delightfully described by cognitive scientist Steven Pinker as “a list of irrational, arbitrary and linguistically obtuse personal peeves”. 

I’m indebted to Times columnist Sathnam Sanghera (a former pupil of whom I’m massively proud) for the Pinker quote, and also for a splendid piece in the paper’s business section that lambasted JRM for breaking his own rules on numerous occasions, and concluded that all the corporate buzzwords and jargon in the world are as nothing compared with the awfulness of such political mantras as “global Britain”, “taking back control”, “turbocharge the economy” and “the liberal elite”.

Remarkably pompous

My reaction to the news was echoed across the Twittersphere: it was a remarkably pompous start to his new job, he had proved himself an arrogant ass, and he should sod off back to the 19th century where he belongs.

I mean, fancy telling highly skilled professionals how to write documents! It’s patronising and insulting. As a headteacher I would never have done that, I declared. Then a small, reproachful voice whispered inside my head, “What about those staff guides for writing reports, then?” Ah, that’s different – surely? Still, just in case it isn’t so very different after all, I’d better confess.

Obvious traps

For many years, I did issue guidance at report-writing time. I’d remind colleagues to avoid the obvious traps: it’s/its; there/their; practice/practise. Next, I’d urge the correct punctuation of that old chestnut of an ending: “Well done, Jimmy. Keep it up!” instead of the excruciating, but common, “Well done Jimmy keep it up”. Academic deputies would generally add encouragement to cover particular aspects of learning, attitude, progress and advice for improvement (we didn’t do levels or targets).

Of course, typos were rife, notwithstanding the wonders of spellcheck technology. They were maddening, I admit. But it was important to remember that teachers were under pressure of time, and that two written reports a year for every child represented a colossal collective undertaking and an almost unimaginable number of words typed.

I hope my guidance wasn’t patronising. Moreover, I never believed that the schools I was privileged to lead had any need of an enforced house style, either in the classroom or in their communications with parents. And, if the latter weren’t always perfect, despite huge proofreading efforts, parents (if they stopped to think about it) probably appreciated both the scale of the undertaking and the benefit of teachers’ individual modes of expression.

Light touch

The advent of school management software, nearly three decades ago, brought with it a revolution in reporting to parents. Remember those famous comment banks, designed to make the teachers’ task easier? If the concept was brilliant, its application was clunky. Reports instantly became as bland, mechanical and impersonal as a modern Ofsted report (ouch), allowing no flexibility beyond combinations of stock phrases. My wife, then a peripatetic violin teacher, complained that she couldn’t find any way of commenting on her pupils’ bow-holds, a significant element in making progress on that instrument.

Nowadays, many schools will issue style guides for report-writing. I hope most keep it light touch, though I fear that in 2019 the micromanagement of which countless teachers complain, whether through the pressure of government accountability systems or sheer MAT/SLT control-freakery, has probably infected that vital personal communication with parents too.

As for a final judgement on Rees-Mogg, J (Esq., M.P.), I can offer only the glorious (but almost certainly apocryphal) subject report attributed to a crusty schoolmaster: “I expected little from him. I have not been disappointed.”

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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