The Language of Labels

A recent conversation about Medium Term Plans made me think about the terminology we might say goodbye to now that we have waved the old National Curriculum off. I grew very excited about the thought that certain phrases might just cease to exist.

  1. Level – somehow the word level seems associated with elevators, altitude, flat surfaces and more recently, Somerset. It was a way of avoiding saying “grade” or “stage”. It took some of the heat out of assessment, perhaps because it can be used to mean calm and rational.
  1. Scheme of Work – when I first heard Scheme of Work in the 90s, I thought, “Oh, nice, yes, sounds like a good new name for a plan of the term’s teaching.” When I kept seeing SOW it did start to make me think of the proverb about making a silk purse from a sow’s ear; this was unfortunate as I did actually have to try to do that most days of the week. As time went on SoWs seemed to become the cure-all, the solution to all our problems. Everyone believed that without good SOWs, we would be doomed, especially during Ofsted (whose inspectors rarely looked at them in my experience). They became increasingly burdensome as detail was piled upon detail creating landscape print-outs full of tiny fonts packed into columns which nobody could navigate. The result, especially in departments where these were “enforced” was that teaching seemed to come second to delivering what someone else had written and decided was right for your class even though they had never taught that class. We are operating in a context where change is relentless, where new and relevant information is being streamed our way by the second; to work effectively with our students we need something more flexible than a read-only concrete Scheme of Work.
  1. Long, Medium and Short Term Plans – what were these meant to do exactly? Why couldn’t we just have a list or outline of what we were going to teach that year, term or week? What does the Medium bit mean? To me a Medium Term Plan always suggested something that lasted until Feb (half way through the year) or something that led us to half way through the term. Why didn’t we have Termly Overviews? Unit Overviews, Teaching Intentions Term / Unit 1? Plans never work out anyway, as we know from “Of Mice and Men”. Much better to have an “overview” which suggests that you have a general vision of what you want to cover but somehow leaves room for divergence and creativity. Or an “intention” which suggests you want to head in a certain direction but allows for the fact that you might be deflected. There is something about plans – if they are not fulfilled there is always a suggestion of failure – “Oh, that plan didn’t quite come off…”. Can an overview fail?

The new curriculum is supposed to offer us new freedoms. Hopefully this means that we can re-label our practices and documentation sensibly and in language that emphasises and encourages that freedom. Perhaps schemes and plans and levels were all part of the straightjacket English has been forced into over the last few years.

It is worth considering very carefully what kind of labels we would like – how many times have you searched your hard drive for that elusive folder you wished you had labelled differently? I have often labelled files using terminology that I think I should use (usually because it sounds very grown up and important) or simply saved them using their original “given” names. It never works. I end up renaming them so that I can relate to the content more quickly and easily. At one school I worked in, some time was taken in a meeting to discuss what we should call the list of students who had to achieve A* – C in English and Maths; the whole school know that this list was set in stone. I chirped up, “Just call it the Granite List” and they did. Everyone knew what that list meant. If schools now have the freedom to explore their own curriculum and assessment pathways, they should also take time to name their documents almost as thoughtfully as they would name their children.   They could be in the house for just as long.

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