John Cary, head of accreditation at the NCTJ, reflects on the work to help young journalists as they strive to win their personal battle to succeed at shorthand.
Nervous laughter. Unconvincing smiles. General sheepishness and shuffling in seats. The reaction is always much the same when I ask journalism students one simple question about their studies.
“How’s the shorthand going?”
The responses don’t vary much because the challenge is the same for all of them. Getting from zero to 100 words per minute (wpm) within the duration of an NCTJ-accredited course is hard. Always has been, which explains the empathy that is regularly evident among the working editors sitting with me talking to students on accreditation visits.
Those editors readily confess their own struggles to get their 100 before going on to reinforce why the achievement matters so much. That magic number on a CV has the power to convince an editor that an applicant is serious about pursuing journalism as a career and has put in the hard graft to arm themselves with the skills they need.
The NCTJ’s accreditation board sees reports from courses across the country. Hundreds of candidates do pass their 100wpm each year. Some centres have excellent records in getting students up to speed. Others struggle. I was asked by the board to look at what works and what doesn’t – and to share good practice as widely as possible.
There was no shortage of help in the task. Shorthand tutors are great evangelists for the subject. They responded enthusiastically to an NCTJ survey, and I was also able to draw on ideas from the NCTJ’s annual shorthand seminar.
Attendance at classes, lack of motivation, timetabling, surroundings and prioritising shorthand in the workload on the course were among the issues that were reported back.
Morning lessons were favoured by many in the survey – but scheduling shorthand too early in the day can hit attendance levels (cue hollow laughs from working reporters who know what awaits students once they secure that first job in a newsroom).
Three-quarters of tutors prefer lessons of 60 or 90 minutes. No-one thought lessons of two and a half hours or more worked best. The tutors themselves believe streaming students by ability would produce more 100wpm successes.
From my experience visiting all the accredited courses, those that do best manage to create a pressure to succeed within a limited period. This happens naturally on a fast-track course, but is harder to produce for an undergraduate programme.
Allied to this is a culture of success. Put simply, if lots of students before you have got to 100, and it is clear that’s what expected of you too, your chances are greater than on a course where students set out on the shorthand journey more in hope than in expectation.
Above all though, students do well when they have great teachers who inspire them. Once they’ve overcome that initial sheepishness, students often tell accreditation panels of their huge loyalty to their amazing shorthand tutors. They are striving to get to 100wpm as much as anything to avoid letting their teacher down.
I know my own journey to 100wpm was helped enormously by the hard work and good humour of Christine Richardson at Richmond College, Sheffield. As a matter of fact (a phrase for which I still remember the Pitman outline thanks to Christine), one idea which the NCTJ will do more to encourage is to create a buddy system where any tutor will be able to call on a colleague working at another centre for informal support and help.