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.

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Why doesn’t mainstream media pay FE more attention? And other fruitless disconsolations

“Why doesn’t the mainstream media pay us more attention?”  A common cry in further education. Notwithstanding the popularity of apprenticeships as a news topic, primariy driven by the fact that they represent a flagship Government policy, these lamentations have some foundation.

Journalists’ opinions on this one differ. The late Mike Baker thought that colleges needed a cadre of controversial Principals in order to attract more attention from news desks. He definitely had a point in terms of how unattractive journalists find FE jargon and tendencies towards the platitudinous or bromidic.

But attempting to out-maverick the crack corps of (certain) head teachers and vice chancellors who comment on the opening of an envelope is a risky strategy. Particularly if what you are saying is, in order to attract attention and in the long view, daft.

Alison Kershaw, Press Association education correspondent, told an audience of education PR practitioners that the cause was more prosaic – too many of the press releases received from colleges were poorly written or presented and she never made it past the subject line. I received some of the the same releases for ten years; she had a point. Now the pool of eloquent, professional PROs in colleges appears to be deepening.

A news editor friend of mine (who wants to remain nameless for fear of reprisals) thinks it reflects the lack of familiarity among his peers with the state school system. ‘We hacks send our kids to the alma mater’, he admits.

In truth, it’s an exasperating question, and not just because of its ubiquity, being often (but not always) borne out of four mistaken assumptions, namely that:

1.    media prioritise topics and stories according to an empirical (but faulty) system of ‘merit’.

In the real world, they’re caught in a circle of responding to what readers and listeners find most interesting, which in turn is affected by complex and inconsistently-applied editorial judgements based on factors as diverse as the political affiliation of a newspaper or TV station, a breakfast conversation between the news editor and her partner and whether the sun is shining today.

2.    FE’s obscurity is somehow intrinsic to colleges.

When the causes are primarily environmental. Thanks to the Blair Government’s specialist school scheme (in the application for which hundreds of schools renamed themselves ‘college’) there are far more schools bearing the name ‘college’ than FE, specialist or sixth form colleges. A college can also be an American university, an independent school or an Oxbridge sub-set. The funding system imposed on incorporated colleges is spectacularly labrynthian, baffling for specialist education correspondents, never mind unfamiliar general reporters. Vocational qualifications, in which many incorporated colleges specialise, come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, compared to the uniform GCSE, A-level and degree. School is a universal rite of passage, university one of (sadly) relative privilege, both common experiences for the night editor of the Daily Telegraph or a Guardian sub (hello there), whereas college may not be. It’s no wonder journalists might pass over an FE story in favour of one they find easier to understand and so explain to the reader, listener or viewer.

3.    appearing in national newspapers or on television/radio is necessarily a good thing.

Often, it isn’t. As Alistair Campbell told an audience of college leaders back in 2005, if the ratio of positive to negative stories in a newspaper is 1:20 then putting effort into appearing in that paper might not be such a great idea. There are people who make a lot of money dedicating their lives to keeping organisations out of the media.

This isn’t to say media relations on behalf of further education is not worthwhile or, often successful. College students and staff, alongside expert commentators from organisations such as the Association of Colleges* appear in national newspapers, on radio and television stations every week.

*shameless but factually correct former-employer plug.

4.    it has to matter.

It doesn’t. In the splintering of our media and the promiscuity of our consumption, focusing on print, cathode rays or radio wave belies a certain level of unfamiliarity about the opportunities for communicating what colleges do and their rather extraordinary contribution to society**. Yes, talking about an issue on the Today programme often means it will reverberate across traditional and social media for the rest of the day, but there is now a luxuriance of channels we can effectively use to raise awareness, change attitudes or affect behaviour. On holiday in Greece this summer I couldn’t move for a cosmopolis of kids singing the chorus of ‘Dumb ways to die’, thanks to an Australian Metro public service announcement video uploaded to Youtube in November last year. I’m not saying that the campaign has stopped Australians from driving around level crossings (although the agency says early results are showing a 20% reduction in accidents and near-misses on the Melbourne Metro) but you get my drift.

**shameless but factually correct former-sector plug