Another spin on the merry-go-round

MY sources tell me that in future there will be no "initiatives" in Scottish education. Please try to contain your disappointment. This does not mean that we will be deprived of the sight of grinning politicians at carefully staged events surrounded by pleasant-looking children.

All it means is that the word "initiative" will be consigned to outer darkness. Apparently spin doctors have discovered that every time it is used members of the public reach for a sick bag.

The words we use are important. Skill in the use of language is an essential dimension of political power. Simple messages repeated frequently develop into a common linguistic currency that helps to determine the kind of thinking that is possible. Alternative forms of discourse are marginalised and discredited. However, thanks to the insights of postmodern writers, there is a growing awareness of the various verbal techniques that are used to promote acceptance of policy proposals. When particular terms cease to have persuasive value, they have to be replaced.

If "initiatives" are out, what are the options? There are several possibilities. In the past, "programme" has been a favoured term: both 5-14 and Higher Still were, in their early stages, described as development programmes. The implication was that, instead of a rigidly defined set of prescriptions, the curricular framework in each case would evolve in response to consultations, pilot studies and feedback from teachers.

This rationale may have had some credibility as far as 5-14 was concerned, but it was much less convincing in the case of Higher Still where teachers soon formed the view that, regardless of their representations, a centrally driven policy was going to be forced through. Conspiracy theorists pushed the argument further and suggested that the intention was to produce a "programmed" teaching force, incapable of thinking of alternative ways of conceiving of the curriculum.

What about "schemes"? Again this has been used in the past. One thinks of the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) of the 1980s which was presented as an opportunity to enhance the vocational skills of "non-academic" pupils, but was widely perceived as an attempt to disguise the extent of youth unemployment. It is but a short linguistic journey from "scheme" to "scheming".

Moreover, many of the intended beneficiaries of YTS would have come from local authority housing schemes, suggesting an interesting social class dimension to the choice of terminology. The conjunction of language and power is again evident.

The currently favoured "project" is regarded by officialdom as relatively neutral and inoffensive. It conveys an impression of open-mindedness with regard to the final outcome, a feature that is absent from some of the other terms. Moreover, projects will involve "partners" who will "collaborate" with government and other agencies. Experiences will be "shared" and there will be mutual benefits to all concerned. Naturally the tricky question of whether the partners will be genuinely equal is not addressed.

I have an alternative suggestion which, I can safely predict, will not be acted upon. Why not go the whole hog and admit that what is being presented (whether as a programme, scheme or project) is a verbal show, a theatrical performance, a circus act of smoke and mirrors?

All future developments could then be launched with showbiz pizazz along these lines: "The Scottish Executive is proud to present a new Jack McConnell production, script by senior civil servants, choreography by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education and introduced by the Minister for Education and Young People."

In due course, such an approach might even come to be regarded as a refreshingly honest "initiative".

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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