One of my favourite lines of poetry comes near the end of T S Eliot's The Journey of the Magi:
"It was (you may say) satisfactory." It is the precisely accurate word for the magi's discovery of the baby after their cold coming at the worst time of the year. Eliot rescues the word from its debased coinage of "passable" or "mediocre", and returns it to its pristine meaning of "making enough" or "giving satisfaction". After a good meal, when offered more, you reply, "No thank you, I am satisfied." Eliot resisted the contemporary habit of throwing in superlatives or adverbs to lend weight to a word, knowing that it merely serves to drain the original of meaning. You know the sort of thing, "That's really really good (or wicked)!" or "That's mega-cool!"
So in a way I was pleased to hear the news yesterday that Ofsted intends to scrap the "Satisfactory" category in its assessment of schools' performance. Previously there'd been four: "Outstanding - good - satisfactory - inadequate". Yesterday an Ofsted press release announced: "Ahead of a government summit on ‘coasting schools’ to be held at Downing Street later today, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has confirmed his intention to scrap the ‘satisfactory’ judgment for school inspections. The move is designed to tackle the number of coasting schools that have remained stubbornly ‘satisfactory’ over a number of inspections, as highlighted in Ofsted’s Annual Reports over recent years. The proposals, which will be subject to consultation, would mean that any school that does not provide a good standard of education will be given a new “requires improvement’ grade." (Pity that even Ofsted managed to make a punctuation error - which is less than satisfactory and requires improvement.)
Sadly too Ofsted isn't acting from as disinterested a motive as restoring the power of language. So Chief HMI and former whizz-kid headteacher (credited with turning round failing schools single-handed...), Sir Michael Wilshaw, says, "Of particular concern are the 3,000 schools educating a million children that have been 'satisfactory' two inspections in a row. This is not good enough." (As I've explained, "satisfactory" precisely means "good enough".) It sounds as though the idea is to amalgamate the present "satisfactory" with "inadequate", creating an even blunter hammer to crack the nut (or the NUT perhaps). In fact, dark suspicions lurk that it's a ruse to prove how unsatisfactory state schools are after all, proving the need for academies, free schools and all the other devices for diversifying (or confusing) the system. The government might like to know, what every effective teacher knows, that workers, whether students or employees, respond better to encouragement than to threats.
It is devoutly to be hoped that the promised "consultation" will be more of the John Lewis "forum" model (favoured by the deputy prime minister) than the commission-and-ignore approach which the government seems to be meting out to the Dilnot Report.