How to check your spelling the El Tel way

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
If you were asked where GCSEs and A-levels were accepted and GNVQs (general national vocational qualifications) and NVQs (national vocational qualifications) rejected out of hand, your answer might say a lot about your priorities and perhaps your prejudices, but how many would include in the answer the spellcheck facility in your word-processing package?

Mine is as unreconstructed as the most medieval of our universities. Normally, the program will offer helpful alternatives to unfamiliar combinations of letters. In this case, not only does it thumb its nose at these new-fangled qualifications, but also it has no suggestions as to how they might be improved.

This is a disappointment, because some of its proposals for other unrecognised initials, names and abbreviations are often better, or at least more inventive, than the originals. Some of them even say something that might be described as inadvertently revealed wisdom.

Consider, for example, what it makes of AOC (the Association of Colleges). Spellcheck offers roe, a mythical monster that had difficulty in getting airborne, but, once it had got its hooks in you, would not let go. Sinbad the sailor had trouble with it. It is not as if the program has just not caught up with recent developments: it didn't like the now-defunct College Employers Forum (CEF) either, preferring CHEF which was of course a joke, or rather a lot of them, made into a television comedy series, in which the main character had an unappealing management style and was fond of the cooking sherry.

The author of the program clearly had no notion of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), suggesting "fence" but without explaining whether it was a word for a restrictive construct designed to distinguish one area of growth from another and to keep volatile creatures under control, or whether it was to be used for a receiver of hot properties.

The FEFC's most cherished product, the individual Student Record (ISR), the whole basis on which we are funded, and a monumentally elegant computerised solution in its own right, is also rejected by the spellcheck. Given the awe with which we regard the ISR, it is reassuring to see that the proposed alternative is the simple "sir".

If you have doubts about the compressed jargon now rife in the sector, you are not alone. So does the program, to the extent that it won't acknowledge the existence of "qualaim" (an ugly abbreviation of qualification aim) and offers "qualm" instead. It may well be the case that students starting their college career have ill-defined qualms rather than precise qualaims.

Spellcheck's high-handedness can be quite hurtful. The senior management team members at Accrington and Rossendale are notably hard-working and clean living, their collective minds on the rarified matters to do with the leadership of a large institution spending pots of public money.

How unfair to have to report that SMT is rejected in favour of "smut". In that squeaky-clean forum, we do talk of the East Lancashire Training and Enterprise Council, using the affectionate acronym ELTEC, also alien to the program, El Tel is the nearest it can get to describing the multimillion-pound operation.

El Tel was the press's affectionate way of describing the one-time multimillionaire England football coach Terry Venables, who had earlier Spanish managerial experience and is now making a lot of lawyers very happy. There can be no suggestion that any TEC has adopted undesirable Spanish practices, nor that our local one is about to star in any high-profile, high-cost, High Court action, so the connection made by spellcheck is a mystery.

So it goes on, with the recent history of education and training being rewritten by an unaccountable programmer. The school sector is not immune: the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) had apparently been "ousted", or at least declared "offside". I wonder what the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, makes of that, although spellcheck insists that he's called Woodshed, in which, as Great Aunt Ada Doom claimed in Cold Comfort Farm, there is something nasty.

Records of Achievement (RoAs), which many people in the business would see as a real success story because they encourage young people to celebrate the whole range of their activities, are blithely dismissed as "rot". The Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) is, apparently, a "scam", which is usually defined as the plausibly unscrupulous separating the foolishly gullible from their money. Something wrong there, then.

Two people who have graced the sector since incorporation have failed to make it into the spellcheck's hall of fame. One is Dr Terry Melia, about to retire as chief inspector: Melia is out but Melba is in. The great Australian opera singer of that name was famous for retiring at frequent intervals, which can't be said of our Terry, but she gave her name both to fragile and hard-baked toast and to a sweet multi-textured creation which not only features a juicy pear, but is celebrated wherever discerning people meet for shared enjoyment. Let the reader decide.

The second absentee is Sir William Stubbs, latterly chief executive of the FEFC. It is true that Sir William is famous for his rapier-like mind and for his taste for dramatic, unexpected announcements, so Sir William Stabs or Stuns, which are both suggested, are understandable alternatives. Sir William Stuffs must surely be a mistake. Happy New Year.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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