Weasel Words in Education Part 5: Rigour

A crack team of DfE boffins test the proposed new system for the management and oversight of the United Kingdom’s increasingly fissiparous school system.

Rigour, n.

1. The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

2. severity or strictness.

3. (when pluralized) harsh and demanding conditions

In education (as in other walks of life) the word rigour is usually meant in sense (1) when applied to one’s own thinking or the thinking of one’s friends or allies: “I am being rigorous. However, you, sir, are merely pedantic.”

These days, sense (2) seems to require the insertion of a prefix, as in “The moderation of our controlled assessments was over-rigorous.”

Rigour is therefore a good thing, right?

However, in my opinion it seems to be used more and more as a talisman rather than as a genuine description.

Mr Gove told the Commons: “The new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science.”

The Independent, July 2013

I am not sure if Michael Gove* is using the word in sense (1) or sense (2) here. If he meant it in sense (2) then it is a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the idea that GCSEs will be more challenging. If he meant it in sense (1) then the promise of “extended writing [and] more testing” doesn’t tell me how the new exams will be more thorough and careful. This is not saying that the examination system does not need to be more thorough and careful, merely that “extended writing [and] more testing” won’t necessarily make it so.

Let me emphasise that I am not opposed to rigour. I like rigour and being rigorous, at least in sense (1). I would perhaps favour the words consistent and fair rather than use rigour in sense (2) in an educational context, but that’s a personal preference.

In short, I wish people would be more rigorous in their use of the word rigorous. You shouldn’t just use it because you think it sounds good. A is rigorous while B is not should mean more than I like A and dislike B.

And as a final thought, I strongly suspect that many of the people who are most keen to bemoan the lack of rigour in education would have to step out of the kitchen when push came to shove, as in this little vignette:

[I listened] to magazine columnist Fred Barnes . . . whine on and on about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for why students are doing so poorly. “These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!” he bellowed, as the other panellists nodded in admiration at Fred’s noble lament.

The next morning I called Fred Barnes at his Washington office. “Fred,” I said, “tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.”

He started hemming and hawing. “Well, they’re … uh … you know … uh … okay, fine, you got me—I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?”

No, not really. You’re one of the top TV pundits in America, seen every week on your own show and plenty of others. You gladly hawk your “wisdom” to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens, gleefully scorning others for their ignorance.

— Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (2001), p.58


* His successor Nicky Morgan look set to continue Gove’s use of the term.

Postscript: For the those (including myself) who are classically undereducated: The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer about the Trojan War. The Odyssey is another epic poem by Homer recounting the ten-year journey home from the Trojan War made by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.

Weasel Words in Education Part 4: Robust

There are robust systems in place for the safe recruitment of staff, which assess their suitability to work with young people.

–OFSTED report (selected randomly), Oct 2013. p.6


In [a number of the] schools visited where science achievement had recently improved [there had been a] robust review by senior leaders, leading to a reduction in weaker teaching

OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013. p.26 [emphasis added]

“Robust” is an increasingly common word in educational circles these days.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. As a physicist, I would argue that a nice graph is worth at least five thousand.


It certainly seems that the setting up of Ofsted has significantly increased the usage of the word “robust”. In fact, the phrase “to infinity and beyond!” springs to mind when we view the precipitous increase after 1984. Now, it might be argued that this is merely conincidental: after all, correlation is not proof of causation.

This is true. But just for the record, an advanced Google search for the word “robust” on just the Ofsted website alone gets 87300 hits. (A similar search of the Ofgem website returns just 5790 results). When Google release a more up-to-date dataset, it will be interesting to see if the usage of “robust” will have increased or decreased during Sir Michael Wilshaw’s tenure. I know what possibility I’ll be putting my money on.

Robust adj.
When used in an educational context:
1. [of systems or processes] able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions
2. [of SLT or other interventions] uncompromising and forceful

What it actually means in practice:

    Robust adj.

  1. A system or process that is explained at tedious length in the staff handbook and that has least one desultory paper trail so that we can pretend that this thing happens as a matter of course: (A custom more honoured in speech than in observance, you might say.)
  2. A meeting during which SLT got (a) shouty; or (b) offered “support” that turned out to be profoundly unsupportive; or (c) both


As a final thought, UK education seems to be in the hands of people who like to use the word “robust” a lot. H’mmm, I feel a song coming on . . .

# If there’s something weird
# and it don’t look good
# Who ya gonna call?
# ROBUSTers!!!