Diary

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Remember Gillian Shephard's much-publicised determination to declare war on "yobspeak" and "communication by grunts"? Carborundum does. And so, when prodded, does the Department for Education.

Readers with long memories will recall that the campaign popped up during the Tory party conference last October, at a time when the thunder of Mrs Shephard, as the new Education Secretary, was partly stolen by the Prime Minister's determination to keep as his own baby the policy on nursery education.

"I shall use my time as Secretary of State to campaign for the use of plain, simple, effective English - not just in the classroom but in the media, in industry and commerce, even in Parliament. We shall all need to be involved. I want to harness all our talents in a national campaign to encourage the better use of our national language," she declared, ringingly.

Her Big Idea - including an attack on estuarine English - was to have started this spring. Yet the offensive appears to have run aground. Her own special adviser, asked about progress earlier this year, thought some sort of announcement likely "around St George's Day" (April 23, also Shakespeare's birthday), a date which came and went. It had also been decided that the DFE's role would be to co-ordinate and promote the idea, rather than running the whole show itself.

Last month, scurrilous stories suggesting the English campaign had been an idea tossed to the faithful to be quietly forgotten until the next party conference were uncertainly dismissed by a DFE lackey who promised that the matter was under active consideration. "To surface again at the next conference?" Carborundum enquired. An eloquent shrug served as reply.

But now something does seem to be happening, although perhaps with as much sideways movement as forward. In May, Carborundum has learned, a meeting was convened in Sanctuary Buildings involving DFE officials and various representatives of the Great and the Good. Sir Ron Dearing was notable by his absence, but replaced by such luminaries as Sir David English, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, women's magazine supremo Iris Burton and the jolly Alan Wells of the Basic Skills Agency. The TUC and the Confederation of British Industry also seem to have been represented, while the redoubtable Chrissie Maher, founder and leading light of the Plain English Campaign was there to strike a rather more down-to-earth note. And what DFE meeting would be complete without the chief executives of the inspection and curriculum quangos, Nick Tate and Chris Woodhead?

Ms Maher, the self-styled "Grandmother of Plain English", said: "It was a most amazing group of people. With Sir David English, the women's magazines person and a lot of people from the Department for Education it was a very strange mixture. Everyone sat around and gave their own views for some time. Grammar was talked about, and another thing was accents. As a Scouser I'm a great lover of accents and English should reflect them.

"One thing they were trying to do was turn everything into an academic exercise. Me and the bloke from the Basic Skills Agency were more from the grassroots, and were asking how people without any qualifications would get on if it was decided to do this."

Decisions appear to have been few and far between, but at least the G and the G were refreshingly rude about most of the DFE's bright ideas. Campaigning for "correct" or "plain" English is out: "good, effective" English is apparently to be the buzz phrase. Any campaign should be permanent, like the drinking and driving blitz. It should not be seen as yet another worthy initiative and activities should be "populist".

Possibilities include a survey of the language, attempts to raise standards through primary education (a winner with Ms Maher) and - mind-bogglingly - the possibility of spoken English competitions between different areas. Enlisting a celebrity was also suggested to attract publicity, but the problem may be in finding one who does not speak Estuarine, a dialect which apparently has even spread to the likes of Princess Diana. Step forward Richard Branson and the Virgin English campaign?

Meanwhile, another solution to the glo'al stops problem emerged recently from an irreverent, therefore understandably anonymous, educationist.

This person suggested that wha' we needed was a week-long campaign on the lines of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme to be called: "Neighbourhood Listen". His idea is that if you hear anyone in your street using bad grammar or unreceived pronunciation you stick a label on him or her with the message: "Speak proper English". Simple enough. But the point is that you literally stick in the label, with a pin, so you can see, by the end of the week, how many are dead. Politically incorrect, we fear.

When a puff of white smoke rising above Stoke-on-Trent this afternoon announces the identity of the Secondary Heads Association's new vice-president, history will also be made either once or twice. You see, both candidates (Bruce Douglas and Peter Miller) are from grant-maintained schools - and a GMVP would be a first. What's more, Peter Miller is only a deputy head - and they haven't had one of those before, either. Radical, eh?

We are indebted to the Landau Forte City Technology College in Derby for its novel method of pupil punishment: sending transgressors home on time. This is apparently a fate worse than death for computer-mad teenagers. Principal Peter Shackleton explained: "It's not a joke - the system really does work."

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