Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Alphabet soup

Alphabet soup

No stranger to mnemonics, abbreviations and TLAs (or 'threeletter acronyms'), Paul Topping is struggling to keep up with the FMN (frequently-modified nomenclature) of his employer.

The card that first declared me eligible to be a teacher sits in a drawer along with other treasured possessions - passport, premium bond numbers and driving licence (the green piece you still seem to need to hire cars despite it (a) not having your photo on and (b) having a juvenile signature that bears little resemblance to the free-flowing autograph that has embossed a hundred thousand letters to parents, school cheques and permissions for absence).

A closer examination last week reminded me that this card, rather insignificant but still twice the size of the GTC card which supersedes it, has my DES number on it - DES being the Department of Education and Science, the government department at the time.

The DES was born in 1964 when the Ministry of Education - which, at the implementation of the 1944 Education Act replaced the Board of Education, the government body since Queen Victoria's time - was renamed, with the 'minister' becoming the 'secretary of state'.

As an NQT - although this abbreviation was not invented until many years later - with a degree in pharmacology, I didn't know whether to be delighted about science being recognised in the department's name or dismayed that it really was an entirely separate discipline from education, suggesting I had made a fundamentally insecure career choice.

In any case, the DES served me well until the Conservative government seemed to decide in 1992 that science no longer merited its acclaimed status on the headed notepaper and, under Kenneth Baker, it became the Department for Education (DFE). Presumably the subtle change in preposition indicated that the department was an advocate for education rather than being a repository of it.

A mere three years later, the DFE was renamed the Department for Education and Employment - DfEE - and in 2001 it became the Department for Education and Skills, DfES. With the Brown premiership has come another development - the DCSF (maybe the DfCSF was just one step too far).

Despite being the third reincarnation for the department in less than a decade, I could live with the DfES. It made sense; it maintained the impression that the opportunities afforded by education were still at the heart of government. It seemed to recognise the role of vocational studies in learning and, most importantly, it rolled off the tongue.

In contrast, simply trying to say 'the DCSF' makes me feel like there is a traffic accident in my mouth. Remembering the right order of the words has proved to be a major challenge to me. This has evidently been the case with others - and I have picked up several helpful aides memoir in the last few weeks:

The department for:

  • centralised school funding

  • caramel sweets and fudge

  • carpets and soft furnishings

  • controlling smelly farts (no guessing from which section of the school population this suggestion came from)

However you might judge the relative merits of each suggestion, it's difficult to argue against the fact they all serve their purpose - keeping the C, S and F in the right order.

I wouldn't worry about this so much but as a scientist and sometime musician, I am fond of mnemonics, acronyms and abbreviations.

I remember my 'every good boy deserves fruit' and my 'Richard of York gave battle in vain' (although my teachers must have missed a cross-curricular opportunity here because exactly which Richard and what battle eludes me to this day).

Long ago, I mastered BBC, UNESCO and NASA. I've even managed to negotiate CATs, BATs, SATs and GOATs which have all featured in assessment parlance.

I did hear a BBC Today presenter recently introduce a story in which she referred to the 'Department for Children and Families' - a slip maybe or perhaps she, too, found it a bit of a mouthful.

But don't whisper it too loudly or we might be heading for the DfCF before too long!

Paul Topping is a headteacher in the West Midlands.

Want to have the last word?

The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you'd like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium.

© 2021 Association of School and College Leaders | Designed with IMPACT