Status anxiety

What is this word?

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

23 March 2013

9:00 AM

‘What are you writing?’ I asked my nine-year-old daughter as she sat at the kitchen table doing her homework.

‘A recount,’ she said.

‘What’s a recount?’

She looked at me with utter disdain. ‘Duh! A recount.’

I calmly explained that you could recount an event in a piece of writing, but that didn’t make what you’d written a ‘recount’. The only sense in which you can use ‘recount’ as a noun is when referring to the act of recounting something.

‘What’s this then?’ she said, waving a piece of paper in my face. Sure enough, the exercise she’d been given by her teacher was to write a ‘recount’ of something that had happened to her the previous week.


‘It’s a mistake,’ I explained. ‘He’s mixing up ‘report’ and ‘account’.’

She shook her head with disbelief. Was I really that stupid? She then produced another piece of homework, this one written by my eight-year-old son. He, too, had been asked to provide his teacher with a ‘recount’.

‘This is amazing,’ I said, holding up the two pieces of paper. ‘It must be a school-wide error.’

‘It’s not a mistake, Dad,’ she said, returning to her homework. ‘Look it up in the dictionary.’

Being a bit of a nerd — and wanting to win the argument — I did. And, blow me, there it was. According to the OED, you can use ‘recount’ as a noun. It defines it as an ‘account, narrative, narration’ and includes an example of it being used in this way by Caxton in 1489: ‘And for the recounte of their adventure, they chased Sybyon.’

How did such an archaic usage become common practice at a primary school in Shepherd’s Bush? I did some research — or, rather, I asked my followers on Twitter — and discovered the answer. It was included in the National Strategies, a piece of ‘guidance’ issued by the Education Department back when it was the Department for Education and Skills. Ruth Kelly was in charge and the department couldn’t produce a press release without descending into New Labour gobbledegook.

This document defines ‘recount’ as ‘a text written to retell for information or entertainment’ and recommends that children be made to produce ‘recounts’ on an almost daily basis. For instance, in ‘Phase 2’ of the ‘Year 5 Non-fiction Unit 2’ (I’m not making this up), children are asked to ‘analyse recounts drawn from a range of media and identify common features and differences’. Incredibly, this how-to manual seems to have been read by all primary teachers — not just in Shepherd’s Bush, but throughout the Commonwealth. If you Google ‘recount’ and ‘noun’ you’ll be taken to the websites of schools in Australia and New Zealand.

Clearly, the word ‘recount’ has become a term of art in the teaching profession and they use it when talking to children, apparently unaware that no one else uses it. It’s a peculiar, unintended consequence of political interference in education. Because teachers in maintained schools are bound to follow the national curriculum — an innovation introduced by Kenneth Baker in 1988 — and because Labour emptied the national curriculum of everything remotely useful and replaced it with ‘skills’, children now leave primary school sounding like education officials circa 2005. They don’t know the difference between ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ or ‘to’ and ‘too’, but they’re fluent in educationalese.

Any parent of a child at state school will be familiar with this phenomenon. Ask them to tell you what they’ve done in history that week and they’ll start talking about ‘concepts’ and ‘themes’. But if you try and pin them down — what period, for instance — they’ll give you a blank look. It’s as if the only thing they really know about is the theoretical framework underpinning the curriculum. The words and phrases that crop up in that document again and again — ‘cross-curricular work’, ‘critical thinking’, ‘analyse and evaluate’ — are the only things the children learn. They’re not even taught the ‘skills’ these words are supposed to describe. Just the eduspeak.

Perhaps this will actually stand them in good stead, particularly if they come of age in Ed Miliband’s tabloid-free utopia. Their mastery of the official language of a large Whitehall department, even if they know little else, may enable them to thrive in a country dominated by regulators and quangos and EU directives. They will at least understand what they’re being told to do. I look forward to reading my daughter’s satirical recount of this New Jerusalem in 25 years’ time.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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