by Anne Nicholls
Every occupational sector has its own jargon. The IT profession has its “bots”, “apps”, “LANs” and “URLs”, whilst the legal profession will never use simple direct language where there is an alternative that can confuse and obfuscate. The business world is not averse to gobbledegook either, with buzz phrases like “thinking outside the box”, “paradigm shifts” and “mission critical” used to make things sound more important than they really are. And don’t get me started on the garbage emanating from some government departments.
Since the world of education is supposed to be all about clear communication and transparent language I was curious to find out whether this sector has its own peculiar jargon. Welcome to Planet Zog where people talk about “curriculum frameworks”, “learning outcomes” and “education facilitators” (or teachers). On this parallel universe “providers” (organisations such as colleges and schools) use “facilitators” to “deliver learning” which is surely more impressive that simply teaching.
Here are just a couple of examples, courtesy of the Plain English Campaign. Instead of saying that children need good schools if they are to learn properly (a no brainer, surely) why not say: “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process”.
Another example, from Ofqual, defines a marking error as: “The awarding of a mark or the arrival at an outcome of Moderation which could not reasonably have been given or arrived at given the evidence generated by the Learner(s) (and for Moderation, the centre’s marking of that evidence), the criteria against which Learners’ performance is differentiated and any procedures of the awarding organisation in relation to Moderation or marking, including in particular where the awarding of a mark or outcome of moderation is based on: an Administrative Error, a failure to apply such criteria and procedures to the evidence generated by the Learner(s) where that failure did not involve the exercise of academic judgment, or an unreasonable exercise of academic judgment’. You can breathe now after than 112 word sentence.
I have spent a good 30 years of my life in the world of education – first as a college lecturer, then in various PR and marketing roles for universities, awarding bodies and education think tanks. So am used to the jargon, but it still sends my brain into seizures.
One memory is being in a meeting where colleagues were talking about curriculum frameworks for NEETs in need of ALS. Looking around the room to see nodding heads it was clear that I was the only one who didn’t understand what they were talking about and, as a newbie, I was too embarrassed to ask. (For the uninitiated NEETs are people Not in Education Employment or Training and ALS is additional learning support. As for a curriculum framework, no-one has to date been able to explain what it is without drawing a diagram.) Even now I still come across more jargon and acronyms that I don’t understand. The latest, in my current role for an awarding body, is GLHs (guided learning hours – or a rough estimate of how long it will take to get the qualification) and the newly convened ESFA – the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
Take this extract from a publication about key skills that I had to review when I worked for an education quango. “This service is to be provided in support of the development of longer term infrastructure support of key skills implementation in England. The key skills implementation group, where many of the appropriate partners are represented, has a remit that includes encouragement of co-operative working to aid the implementation and promotion of key skills”. By the way, did you count the number of times the word “implementation” was used?
The schools sector is equally guilty of management speak and obscure acronyms. In a recent Guardian article a primary school teacher explained how she was fully engaged in the “forward thinking thought shower” of “cascading’ ideas” in the “learning journey”. The daughter of a friend of mine, who is currently an NQT (newly qualified teacher, in case you don’t know) with the Teach First project, recently texted him with this message. “I’ve got to revise my CKA and begin the PPW”. For those not in the know I think CKA is Core Knowledge Assessment (note the capitals which make it sound more pompous that it really is), which in plain English means assessing whether she know enough about the subject to teach it – I suppose. But am totally mystified as to what PPW is. His wife, also a teacher, has introduced me to a whole string of acronyms. There’s EYFS, EWO, FSM , G&T, EHCP and EBD. (See the end of this article for an explanation.)
For PR professionals, translating this edu-speak into language that ordinary folks as well as journalists can understand is a major challenge. People who work in education are often very precious about language, complaining that using simple Anglo Saxons words means dumbing down.
So here are my four tips on how to deal with jargon, obfuscation and pomposity.
1. Challenge colleagues to explain what they mean, even if you think you know. Resist claims that their audience will understand terms such as “knowledge transfer”, ”widening participation” or “curriculum framework”. Even if some do, others may not. You will need to find new language to explain these concepts. Be prepared for battle.
2. Always spell out acronyms unless they are universally recognised – like the NHS or CBI.You can always then use the acronym once you’ve explained it. So write the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and use ESFA thereafter.
3. Journalists hate education jargon, even terms like “learners” instead of “students”. If you have to stick to edu-speak in a press release you can always point out the real story in the email, or just call them to explain. Another strategy is to have two versions of press releases – one for the education sector and one for everyone one else.
4. Education is all about people. Instead of talking about implementation strategies and curriculum frameworks, find the human interest story. Taking the key skills example, there is a powerful story about how a drive to improve adult key skills is making a real difference to the employment prospects of people with poor literacy and numeracy. Ask for examples. Structures and schemes don’t make good stories; people do.
EYFS. Early Years Foundation Stage
EHCP. Education, Health and Care Plans (replacing statement of SEN or Special Educational Needs) .
EWO. Education Welfare Officer.
FSM. Free School Meals.
G&T. Gifted and Talented
PPW. Pupil Personal Workers.