The tyranny of Eduspeak – how jargon and acronym corrode understanding and reputation

In 2008 a charity called the Learning and Skills Network published a guide to improving communication within the further education sector.

‘It’s a communication jungle out there’ reported the results of a survey of just under 1000 further education lecturers, support staff and managers. The vast majority of respondents felt that jargon and acronyms were far too common and inhibited effective communication.

As the then Chief Executive John Stone wrote (with admirable clarity), the findings posed a challenge to departments, agencies and educators. “[They] show that jargon isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a genuine problem that acts as a real barrier to understanding….At its worst, this shared language can colour our communications with communities, employers and even learners – ultimately shutting out the very people we exist to serve.”

What has changed? Not much, it seems. Fresh jargon and acronyms blossom across agency, department, college and private provider communication like annuals in summer. Perennials return; ‘NEETS’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and ‘blended learning’ were among the various banes of 2007, still growing strong today.

The problem, of course, is not exclusive to further education. As a relatively new primary school governor I find this new blend of Eduspeak[i] – from SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) to CAFs (Common Assessment Frameworks) and SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators) – a constant challenge. Higher and secondary education have their own argot, of course.

Teaching is a specialised profession. As is research. The management of institutions that educate people typically requires a team of diverse professionals, from accountants to facilities managers, human resources practitioners to caterers (in some settings now referred to as ‘midday supervisors’, as if they were The Guardians of Noon). It would be naïve to suggest that these groups should and would not develop a professional lexicon. The problems start when – as the Learning and Skills Network study showed – exclusivity inhibits understanding.

A 2012 study of further education employees revealed that one of the main aspirations that teaching staff have for their management teams was that they ‘protect’ the institution from Government policy changes (and the language they come wrapped in). I read John Stone’s use of ‘learner’ with a wry smile; I would argue that the word is a fine example of a failure to protect, of the linguistic imperialism successfully employed by dominant coalitions.

‘Learner’ is commonly used by Government and agencies as a unit of measurement or summation – from ‘learner participation statistics’ to ‘learner voice’. It has now been assimilated into the vocabularies of further education institutions; colleges use it with, to, about and for their students. The problem is – it is jargon. A bean counter’s word, algorithmic, denominational and a barrier to meaning. You can test this by walking into a pub or a corner shop and starting a conversation about education. Count the minutes until someone – excepting the presence of a tired looking lady who teaches in further education – uses the word ‘learner’. You will wait a long time. Moreover, it can alienate; in the (admittedly few) studies we have undertaken which include a question on the subject, a sizeable majority of post-16 respondents prefer to be called (surprise, surprise) ‘students’.  Yet many spend this stage of their education being labelled with a term they do not prefer. If you don’t believe me, try a straw poll among your …ahem….students.

Life gets even harder when a school, college, university, agency or Government tries to communicate with people who neither receive nor work in education.

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear,” said Socrates. Or, in the words of Steven Covey: “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.”

Language that obscures meaning poses problems for reputation in the way that Socrates and Covey describe it. It is hard to be authentic when no-one understands what you are trying to be. For example, over half of the general public mistakenly think that further education colleges are still under local authority control. It is one of a number of challenges colleges face as a result of widespread misunderstanding of terms like FE and ‘further education’ and it matters because these misconstructions power the reputations of institutions among important publics like parents, press and politicians. These in turn power staff and student recruitment, funding, sponsorship, the policy environment and the melee of other influences that determine what matters most – the quality of education.

These aren’t sixth form centres. They are sixth form colleges. (But the sub-editor that wrote the headline either does not understand the difference or thinks her readership does not.) These aren’t bogus colleges. They are, typically, private language schools. This fantastic paper by the late David Watson highlights common category mistakes made in relation to higher education[ii]. The ‘appalling ignorance among decision makers’ about the world of further education as reported by Helena Kennedy does not exclusively relate to their educational experience. It is in part fuelled by a system still overburdened with qualifications and the jargon that surrounds them. A-level. Degree. GCSE. Got it. BTEC, FD, HNC, HND, NVQ, SVQ, functional skills, traineeships….not so clear.

There is nothing like enough space here to address all the ways in which a college, university or school might improve understanding and aid clarity. But here are three suggestions to start with:

Firstly, test the manner in which you communicate with those with whom you are communicating. For a large organization this might involve qualitative and quantitative research among those groups most important to you[iii]. For a little primary school it might be a few minutes at a coffee morning asking parents if they understood this letter or that policy and if not, why not. At worst, supply or suggest a glossary.

Secondly, use the professional expertise at hand. If you are a college or university and you have a communications team, it is likely to include someone with professional copywriting experience or qualifications, most commonly gained during an earlier career as a journalist. Are they involved in auditing internal and external communications and, if so, with what level of autonomy and impact? Typically schools – though blessed with experts in the application of English – may have to be more creative as regards this type of audit.

Thirdly, and most importantly, be as suspicious of those neologisms and neophilisms as your bones tell you to be. The exciting new initiative announced by the Minister this morning – whether it is a TechBac, EBacc or Teaching Excellence Framework – will suffer from reputation lag. It could be years before internal and external audiences understand the concepts that underpin them. (Colleges bear witness to this every time they are referred to as ‘The Tech’). Or to put it another way, whither the Diploma?[iv]The jargon and acronyms used to decorate these initiatives will further hinder a common understanding. Accordingly, institutions that uncritically welcome the new with open arms and adopt without reflection the language in which they are packaged do their staff, students and broader communities a great disservice.

***

[i] I am a hypocrite. In using the phrase Eduspeak I am of course sacrificing clarity on the altar of vanity, trying to look smart with a nod to George Orwell. Moreover I am guilty of using jargon and acronyms in my professional career – although I am now trying to kick the habit.

[ii] Which includes a dissection and argument against the use of the term ‘sector’ – a sin I have committed here. It’s a hard habit to kick.

[iii] ’Key publics’ in public relations terminology. There I go again.

[iv] This is particularly hypocritical rhetoric, given that I was involved in supporting a national promotional campaign for that qualification.

Comms and marketing evaluation – demonstrating that you made the difference

Since 2008 I have had the privilege of sitting on the judging panel of six different public sector communications awards. Typically the work involves sifting entries before the judging proper takes place, chiselling away at a great black slab of Lever Arch file in your spare time until you have revealed the shortlist.

Sifting is a particularly edifying process because you have an opportunity to see the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes, rather depressingly, the shortlist that you chisel out is very small indeed and you are left with a big dusty pile of rejects.

Which is an unfair descriptor, because entries can be sculpted around a sensible situation analysis, involve solid strategies and be iridescent with tactical brilliance – but they still don’t make the grade.

And very often they fail to do so for one reason – the evidence linking the communications activity with the outcome is either flawed or missing.

Entries of this type typically look like this:

  • Our organisation faced (reputation, communications, marketing) Big Challenge
  • We undertook some Robust Research to understand more about the problem
  • From that Robust Research, we established a Clever Campaign – founded on Awesome Objectives in order to resolve the Big Challenge
  • To meet those Objectives we devised and executed a Shrewd Strategy, underpinned by Terrific Tactics
  • We achieved our Awesome Objectives and resolved the Big Challenge – all thanks to the Clever Campaign

In the context of, say, an education marketing campaign:

  • We had struggled to recruit to certain degree programmes
  • Primary research indicated that the majority of students who expressed an interest in studying those degrees with us (but eventually enrolled elsewhere) were heavily influenced by negative perceptions of the career prospects of those particular courses
  • We devised a brilliant communications campaign targeted at applicants, potential applicants and their influencers to raise awareness of the diversity of rewarding and lucrative careers those courses lead to
  • We met our recruitment targets to those courses

I’m sure you can see the cracks here. While there may be some in-depth research taking place at one end in order to design communications that will best suit a particular problem, the research needed to demonstrate that it was the campaign ‘wot won it’ is missing.

There is no attempt to identify clearly what drove the recruitment, nor to discount alternative causes.

In the context of education marketing, the solution can be as simple as a few questions in the enrolment process: How did you hear about us? Which of the following factors influenced your decision? Who, if anyone, influenced that decision? Etc.

Even if evaluating what is driving campaign outcomes is more complex and costly, cutting back on this kind of research is still a false economy. Because in the end you are going to have to present your case to a senior leadership team and they will, quite rightly, ask for robust evidence of cause and effect.  They are as wary of hyperbole and the unsubstantiated as award judges.

And then there are the entries which include the line: “And our media coverage earned us £X thousands in equivalent advertising spend.” Which tend to be sifted into their own ugly pile quicker than you can say ‘Barcelona Principles’.