Dictionary for the Devil

21st March 2008 at 00:00

Early last century, the American newspaper columnist Ambrose Bierce - a professional cynic if ever there was one - published his Devil's Dictionary. This consisted of a series of humorous and paradoxical definitions, and suggested that words were often used as much to conceal and confuse as to enlighten.

Far be it from me to suggest language is used in a similar way in further education. But if you have ever been irked by the continual and empty repetition of New Labour-style jargon, then I offer the following as an antidote. Hyperbole: often shortened to "hype". Defined by dictionary.com as "an exaggerated and extravagant expression".

Blather: "to talk or utter foolishly" (also from dictionary.com). Many of the terms below fall into one or other of these categories, sometimes both.

World class: I challenge anyone in FE to put out a statement without using this term at least once. World class implies that something is fit to stand beside the best that can be found anywhere in the world. It is, of course, aspirational. Even the most vacuous optimist would be hard put to find too much about what's on offer in FE today that falls into this bracket. After endless repetition, it is becoming a synonym for "ordinary".

First class: much less used than it once was. World class sounds so much more . global. When describing facilities, first class can usefully be replaced by state-of-the-art, although this too has been somewhat diluted by over-use. Today, state-of-the-art tends to mean "updated in 2003".

Quality: on its own, now rather insipid, but add an adjective - most usually "high" - and it really does begin to kick FE ass. Strangely, it is rarely linked to "top", which logic would put above "high". For me, teaching that is "top quality" would be, well, world class.

Excellence: that which we are all in pursuit of. Sadly, most in FE wouldn't know it if it came up out of their bath plugholes and bit them on the goolies.

Outstanding: adjectival version of excellence. As with high quality, it is normally to be found in the company of "provision" (or in the mouths of charlatans).

Deliver: once this only applied to bread and milk. Now it covers pretty much anything connected with education. Delivery of excellence, for instance, is what outstanding teaching is all about.

Targets: like the poor, they are always with us. As we know, without targets nothing is ever achieved at any time or in any place. Hence, the Pyramids emerged by pure chance. There are, apparently, two types of target: dumb and smart. Dumb targets are for other people - yours should always be SMART - according to the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This translates as "specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timed". Education professionals are urged to learn these words and repeat them every night before bed.

Inspirational: what lecturers are now expected to be - albeit that we often fail. Once you could have said the same for "competent". Of course, those who are really required to be "inspirational" are the managers. As there are now many more of them than lecturers, this is something of a tall order.

Dynamic: this is what all managers are required to be when they are not being inspirational.

Vision: that which inspirational and dynamic education managers have. Vision in FE is often only achieved with the assistance of rose-tinted spectacles.

Standards: something that applies to someone else - otherwise they can be found in a pot buried at the end of the rainbow.

Drive up: while it is tempting to add "the wall" to this phrase, serious professionals know that "standards" is what should really be appended. Inspirational and dynamic managers know this too.

Drive forward: managers these days are required to do a lot of driving. The best of them, of course, have no reverse gear.

Ratchet up: variant of "drive up". Ratcheting, though, is considerably harder than driving. When ratcheting up standards you should be aware that improvement will only be incremental, and that each step will require a lot of hard work. If, however, the ultimate accolade of "world class" is achieved, it will all have been worthwhile. Stick with that vision.

Every student matters: sentimental claptrap, plagiarised from the phrase "every child matters" and used just as trashily.

If you are in search of a suitably hyperbolic and blathering term to cover all this verbiage, try this one: current rhetorical aspirational phraseology.

The acronym you can work out for yourself.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today