Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Say what you mean

Speech bubbles

Education is infected with jargon which not only sounds absurd but allows politicians and bureaucrats to pull the wool over our eyes in more sinister ways, argues Bernard Trafford.

Maybe it's my age, but nowadays I frequently receive email messages that I can't make head nor tail of. Generally they come from hi-tech companies selling 21st century services I neither understand nor want, but a recent one had me completely stumped.

It offered me "a free event to learn how to make your enterprise mobility deployment a future-proof success". It also promised that I would "learn how mobilising company information traditionally retained within the confines of a SAP infrastructure can now empower frontline workers".

I did work out that it was something to do, not with electric scooters for the elderly, but with mobile phones, mainly because the graphic gave it away. Now although I'm a head, I'm not yet entirely out of touch, and I frequently do understand what young people are talking about. But I still don't know precisely what this unsolicited email was trying to sell me.

Marketing twaddle

Was it just marketing twaddle? Or was it genuinely the language of the telecoms industry? I guess I may never know, since I didn't sign up. But it was certainly gobbledygook.

When it comes to gobbledygook, we teachers aren't blameless: we communicate among ourselves in jargon incomprehensible to outsiders. When I meet fellow heads we quickly slip into discussing the SEF and analysing the CVA before the SIP arrives; using the CAF with the SENCO; checking the EVC knows all about HASPEV (there will be a test later). What a PEST!

The trouble is, it gets out of hand. When the solution to the enormously complex human problem of bad behaviour in schools was reduced to a BIP, I knew we were in danger. "Put not your faith in acronyms", whispered a still, small voice in my head, "it only encourages them."

The danger is that we allow politicians and policy wonks to disguise their latest daft initiative with some neat, memorable initials or a slick acronym. Thus, that cuddly word PANDA attempted to conceal another step along the road of reducing the myriad intricate interpersonal operations of a school to a set of bald figures. That fluffy animal gave way to RAISE, which never had the same magic. Abbreviations are bad enough. But where we have missed a trick is in the way language itself has been used to change emphasis and subvert meaning. We should have been prepared for it: George Orwell wrote about Newspeak more than 60 years ago.

Take one example of educational Newspeak. It's more than a decade since we lost the words 'suspension' and 'expulsion'. Those terms, unloved but necessary, had a meaning in the educational world: they were redolent of the agonisingly taken human decisions that lay behind them. Their replacement, the impersonal term exclusion (temporary or permanent), somehow distanced the decision from schools, taking it into the hands of the bureaucrats and local authorities.

Sausage-factory view

Other single words have been adopted to imply a brisk efficiency, only to gain a common currency with loaded meaning. The Blair government was obsessed with 'delivery'. It even set up a PM's Delivery Unit which, it turned out, was not some kind of replacement for the Post Office.

Nowadays schools and teachers lapse into talk of "delivering the curriculum" and "delivering diplomas". The implication that you make your plan, deliver a lesson and Bob's your uncle, is as spurious as it is sinister. It reinforces the sausage-factory view of education prevalent ever since the National Curriculum was wished on us more than 20 years ago: raw materials and funding in, predictable outcomes delivered at the other end. The truth is more like stuffing random ingredients into the front end of a pig: we all know what comes out the back end.

The sort of management-speak that, to add gravitas, uses several words where one would suffice - so that window-cleaners become Fenestration Visibility Solutions and dustmen Refuse Processing Operatives - has combined with that politically-loaded language to form a new Edubabble.

It turns report-writing into summative assessment and target-setting, and keeping order into behaviour management strategies. Then there was the new academy built without a playground: asked how the children would get a drink without playtime it was declared that pupils would "hydrate during the learning experience".

This kind of language is highly infectious, viral even. We rarely notice ourselves lapsing into Edubabble: it's just too easy. The current regime at the DCSF simply repeats mantras in response to any criticism: dare to complain about excessive safeguarding paperwork and a spokesman (who forgot his or her own name years ago) merely echoes in a mechanical monotone: "The safety of children is paramount."

There's no escape. I'm off to a provider of Liquid Relaxation and De-stressing Solutions. That's right. I'm going down the pub.

Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle's Royal Grammar School and vice-chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC)

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