A report by the British educational standards body Ofsted last week said that teaching in almost half of maths lessons was satisfactory. That doesn’t sound too bad. But when you read the actual words of the report, the implication is different: “teaching in almost a half of all maths lessons was only satisfactory or worse.” The Guardian felt it necessary to gloss the word satisfactory with the parenthetical note “Ofsted-speak for not good enough.”
We have an ambivalent relationship with satisfactory. Sometimes it can mean “fulfilling expectations” or “all that can be reasonably desired”. More often it says something is rather less good than that, meeting merely the minimum of requirements. A patient who is in satisfactory condition is some way from being well; in law it means the evidence is merely sufficient for the needs of the case. Satisfactory says that something is OK but it’s most certainly not going to win any prizes. If you’re told that your work is satisfactory you’re left with a suspicion you’re being damned with faint praise. As the saying goes, it might be good enough for government work. It belongs somewhere around the level of middling and mediocre in the grade spectrum, better than bad but a whole lot less good than excellent.
However, one common meaning is of meeting requirements set in advance. A candidate may satisfy the examiners that he can proceed to a degree; a film may satisfy one’s expectations; a meal can be satisfying. Taking the word in this way, Ofsted’s pronouncement reads oddly, since presumably that body’s examiners are applying predetermined measures of competence. I can hear teachers arguing that if they’ve met the requirements, then why criticise them? The reason is that Ofsted has found that mathematics is being taught by rote — “taught to the test”, in the catchphrase — so that students can pass their exams but are left without any sense of what the subject is all about. Nothing new there, though the hothouse atmosphere of continual testing and examinations in British schools nowadays means that it is often hard to do anything else.
The sense of mere adequacy is present in the Latin words it derives from: satis, enough, plus facere, to do. The verb appeared first in English, in the fifteenth century, meaning to discharge some obligation, comply with a demand, pay off a debt, or atone for an offence by reparation or punishment (think of a glove slapping a face and a cry of “I demand satisfaction!”). These all had a idea of complete fulfilment absent from modern usage. The adjective appeared the following century with the initial meaning of atoning for sin, but it broadened a century later still into the range of senses we have now; over time it has come to mean no more than adequate, passable, acceptable or barely competent.
To do merely enough isn’t good enough: a hard lesson to learn.