A colleague of experimental psychologist Steven Pinker once joked that verbs were ‘his little friends’ as Pinker believed that the way they are used can give genuine insight into the hidden machinery of cognitive processes.
You know who my ‘little friends’ are? Punctuation marks. I think that they can often give the game away. Take this doozy:
The best secondary schools trusted the incoming ‘levels’ achieved by pupils in primary school as a starting point . . .
–OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013, p.42
The writer asks schools to trust things called “‘levels'”, which the writer has deliberately placed in quotation marks. H’mmm, interesting. Now why would they choose to do that?
By my count, there are five reasons to use quotation marks:
1. Reported speech — this instance doesn’t seem to fit that usage.
2. When coining a new word or phrase — again, this usage is unlikely in this instance.
3. When referring to a word as a word — again, it doesn’t seem to be the intention here.
4. To indicate the title of a book or article — this is definitely not the case here.
By a process of elimination, this seems to leave only one plausible reason for the writer to choose to use quotation marks:
5. To imply that the quoted word or phrase is dubious.
So let’s be clear here: the writer is asking schools to trust things called “‘levels'” that he or she apparently considers dubious enough to wrap in ironic quotation marks.
In this paragraph, Ofsted are urging schools to trust what Ofsted themselves (going by their use of punctuation, at least) consider untrustworthy. What are they going to ask us to do next? Square the circle? Cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring?
Now, where else have I seen ‘levels’ in quotation marks recently? Oh yes . . .
As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed. It will not be replaced.
–DfE, June 2013
Let me summarise: in June 2013, the DfE tells us that ‘levels’ are gone, but then in November 2013, Ofsted admonishes us for not taking ‘levels’ seriously enough.
Sigh. Education: does thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth? Ever?
As a teacher, my way forward is crystal clear: it’s time to get busy cutting down the largest tree in the forest. Now, where did I put that herring . . .