Get the Girfec out of here

20th December 2013 at 00:00

My six-year-old daughter was quite disappointed the other day when I told her that, yes, I did know what "Yolo" ("You only live once") meant. Instantly, the word had been devalued for her because someone from outside the playground could decipher it. At least she had gauged my understanding after throwing an acronym at me; I wish my fellow educators were so considerate.

Acronyms are becoming so ubiquitous in the Scottish education system that it feels as though every new idea must be reduced to its initials to give it kudos, creating a vocabulary of neologisms only understood by those in the know and with no end to their creation. An alphabet of Hnios, AiFL and Shanarri, plus the Sips, Dips and Cips are written and spoken daily in schools without translation, transforming plain English into impenetrable gobbledegook.

"How good is our school?", a clear, simple phrase, becomes a three-syllable neologism "Hgios", where the stress is on the g - and the listener. Have you ever been in a meeting of such urgency that words must be reduced to their initials in case you run out of time?

The most irritating form comes in the Curriculum for Excellence documents, where experiences and outcomes become Es and Os.

My own personal bugbear is when "Girfec" is barked out at a meeting. Is someone clearing their throat? Am I being sworn at? No, we are simply discussing "Getting it right for every child", a strategy that under its full, clear title can't be faulted in terms of the desire it represents to do the best for all children regardless of their circumstances. So why muddy the waters of what is being discussed?

Of course, the real reason is obfuscation. Abbreviations are not used for their traditional function of saving time or space, but to becloud, to create a gap between the "expert" who controls the information and the person who has to translate it into understandable English. Ironically, the use of acronyms in education functions in the same way that textspeak does for teenage communities: a shared vocabulary impenetrable to outsiders. Similarly, in the power struggle of a meeting, if you need to ask what Hnios means, you are seen to be unprepared, out of touch and at a disadvantage.

Yet I feel the acronym user is betraying a lack of belief in the idea they are espousing. Like a student who throws the thesaurus at an essay to cover up their lack of understanding, educationalists try to impress with their vocabulary rather than their thoughts.

That any community should attempt to confuse its audience is bad enough. That it should happen in education, where as teachers we should be communicating in a manner clearly understood by the listener (a concept, which if it were to catch on, would become Ciamcubtl), is even more reprehensible. If only we could eschew obfuscation, things would be so much clearer.

Gordon Cairns is a freelance journalist and an English teacher at Govan High School Autism Unit in Glasgow.

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,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today