Jargon clogs FE works, says study

Survey finds gobbledegook puts blocks on official communication

Joseph Lee

Lecturers and college managers are ignoring important information or failing to understand it because they are baffled by jargon.

More than 80 per cent of staff in further education say they have not read information from government departments or agencies because of a lack of plain English, according to a survey of nearly 1,000 people by the Learning and Skills Network (LSN).

A quarter of staff say they frequently fail to understand information sent to them in jargon-ridden documents; 86 per cent say this happens sometimes.

Only one in 20 can find their way through the acronyms and buzz-words easily, and say the information they generally receive is usually clear and easy to read, says the report, entitled It's a Communications Jungle Out There.

John Stone, the LSN's chief executive, said departments and agencies had to improve or risk their messages being ignored.

"The findings show that jargon isn't just an annoyance - it's a genuine problem that acts as a real barrier to understanding," he said.

"The average manager in a college, work-based learning or adult learning provider feels swamped enough without the next thing that falls from the sky being written in gobbledegook."

He said the LSN, whose own publications are sometimes littered with terms such as MoLeNET, L4LW programmes, the HEAT scheme, and JISCTechDis, also had room for improvement.

"While this report represents a challenge to government departments and agencies, we accept that its findings apply just as much to the LSN," he said. "We started this research because we wanted to improve how we communicate with FE staff, and we will. We hope that other organisations will too."

The Plain English Campaign welcomed the bid to reduce jargon. Spokeswoman Marie Clair said it was vital for education professionals to set an example.

"Clear communications are a democratic right of every individual, particularly where there is a direct impact on our education and employment needs," she said.

"The figures from this survey demonstrate the growing confidence of people in refusing to accept meaningless gobbledegook instead of plain English. That is the principle that started the campaign - a message that can be read, understood and dealt with at first reading."

In a list of 22 words and phrases, the most roundly condemned was "e- maturity", referring to a measure of the successful use of technology, which was criticised by 60 per cent of the survey group.

That was followed by "scaffolding learning", a method of helping students until they can complete a task unassisted. The phrase was was labelled jargon by 55 per cent of respondents.

They also criticised the terms "line of learning", the study routes in the new diplomas, and Neets (youths not in employment, education or training). Both were seen as jargon by more than 50 per cent of interviewees.

Asked to nominate their most hated terms, FE staff said they were infuriated by "contextualised", "cascading" and "going forward". They also criticised the use of "learners" instead of students, and the impersonal alternative: "units".

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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