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Friendlier, but still economic with the truth

Some years ago, one of my students decided to leave teaching and join the civil service. After a year, her progress was reviewed and she was told she was doing very well, save in one respect. In her written reports, she had a distressing tendency to use language too simply and directly so that her meaning was immediately clear. She was advised to cultivate a certain "judicious indirectness" of style to conform to the approved bureaucratic obscurantism of the period.

I was reminded of this on reading two pieces in The TESS (July 11). Brian Monteith noted a failure of communication between key stakeholders in education: "professionals, politicians and the people they serve talk in different languages to each other - their own forms of pidgin education". And in a scathing piece on Building the Curriculum 3, Marj Adams offered this reflection: "I wonder if we have abandoned meaningful statements regarding educational policies for an epidemic of fatigued jargon."

Having read many official documents over the years, I have to agree that too often they employ vague, "feel good" rhetoric and are written in a style that shows little sensitivity to the perspectives of potential readers.

However, it would be wrong to say that bureaucratic writing has remained unaltered since the experience of my former student some 25 years ago. Most official reports now look very different from those of the past. They have been strongly influenced by the techniques of private-sector corporate marketing. Thus they often contain lots of white space, feature colourful photographs, make use of charts and graphs, and break up the density of text with bullet points and lists. All this is intended to be reader friendly.

One document which landed on my desk recently can serve to illustrate the point. It is HM Inspectorate of Education's Annual Report and Accounts 2007-08 (yes, I get all the perks). We are advised on the back cover that HMIE is a corporate member of the Plain English Campaign, "committed to clearer communication". In general, it is written in a fairly accessible style, though it does contain a few examples of the boastful claims which are now a regular feature of the leadership class in Scottish education. Thus it is asserted that the work of the inspectorate has had "a huge, positive impact on children, young people and adult learners" and that training programmes have ensured "the highest possible levels of interpersonal skills in our inspectors".

The format of the document is attractive, in line with the features listed above, and it does contain interesting information about the strategic priorities of HMIE, and even about the remuneration of senior inspectors. But it is essentially a document of narrative privilege, masquerading as a form of public accountability.

Narrative privilege allows powerful players to write their own version of events, which then becomes the received wisdom about their role and function. The language may have changed a little, but it remains important to dig beneath the surface. What is concealed is as significant as what is revealed. A document which was genuinely accountable would tell us much more about the "high quality, independent, professional advice" which, it is claimed, inspectors give to ministers.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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