Behind the scenes and between the lines

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
In a letter to a national newspaper, "a long serving teacher in a secondary school" (his description), referring to the inspectorate document The Journey to Excellence, published earlier this year, stated that he was "fed up with HMI and local authority publications where the chosen imagery is better suited to North Korea".

What caused him particular offence were the illustrations - "carefully shot photos showing happy children and contented teachers", with no photograph showing a normal class size.

In the same issue of the paper, there was a letter from another correspondent complaining about the latest edition of the Glasgow Magazine, "published bi-monthly by the city council to pat itself on the back and modestly tell the citizens what a marvellous job it is doing for us". Part of the complaint once again was the widespread use of self-congratulatory photographs - in this case featuring councillors.

We live in an age where visual images are very powerful and often carry more weight than the accompanying text, partly because they have a more immediate impact and can be assimilated more quickly.

It is not surprising, therefore, that organisations seeking to promote a positive impression of what they are doing should make use of pictures that reinforce the words on the page. Nor is it surprising that less flattering images, for example, of stressed-out teachers trying to cope with unruly classes, or of "tired and emotional" councillors attending a junket, never feature in official publications.

Those who exercise power like to think well of themselves and there are usually careful checks on what is released for public consumption. The comparison with North Korea may be exaggerated but some of the same techniques are involved, albeit scaled down to accommodate the sensitivities of Western democracies.

The cumulative effect of words allied to pictures also invites comment. In the case of The Journey to Excellence, the favoured buzzwords of official thinking are very much in evidence - ambition, achievement, success, quality, leadership and partnership are all frequently invoked.

The intentions behind this terminology are no doubt admirable - to set high expectations and promote positive attitudes in pupils, staff and parents.

But it can be taken too far. I would suggest to the inspectorate that, in future publications, they should pay particular attention to their growing inclination to over-use adjectives, especially in multiple combinations.

This unhelpful trend was evident in the 2004 Scottish Executive document Ambitious, Excellent Schools, with its "tougher, intelligent accountabilities". Ever since then, it seems to have become standard practice to use two, three or more adjectives in combination, where a well-chosen single epithet would suffice. Is it too much to ask for a little adjectival restraint?

These tendencies are by no means confined to schools and local authorities.

They are a feature of the political language of our times, where politicians routinely use spin to put a favourable slant on whatever they do. Again, visit any university website and you will find examples of boastful corporate discourse, which makes over-stated claims about achievements. These may be real enough, but they would actually be more impressive if reported with less hype.

In effect, I am arguing that we need a more modest public discourse, which certainly celebrates achievement but also shows more candour in acknowledging where improvements are needed.

Above all, the language must connect more convincingly with the working lives of those who provide the front line of public services - teachers, doctors, social workers, emergency services - rather than the insulated worlds of the policy-makers and senior managers. Inflated rhetoric simply encourages cynicism and mistrust.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of Paisley

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