Just in plain English please

19th September 2003 at 01:00
Next time you are at an education conference try this exercise. Count the number of times you hear the word "framework".

Now, there is nothing wrong with using the word, as we all know what it means. A framework is something that holds up a tent or building. Wrong.

You are obviously not competent in "learning-and-skills" speak.

Those outside the "magic circle" of policy officials, principals and senior managers remain baffled with the language of "the sector" as it has become known. We have to talk about "learning providers" and "provision", instead of colleges and courses.

It may be more accurate to talk about learning provision (it does act as a convenient shorthand for a multitude of education and training organisations), but without a learning and skills glossary the terms do not make sense outside the magic circle.

Take the term "step change" - used frequently by civil servants across government departments. I initially assumed that it meant a small change.

Wrong. It is more of giant leap than a tiny hop. Is it surprising that people are confused?

As an undergraduate studying sociology, battling my way through the verbose language of that master of obfuscation, Talcot Parsons, I felt well-prepared to unravel terms such as "the process of embedding and internalisation of principles and practice is underway and needs continued support to shift the paradigm" (taken from a learning and skills strategy document). But I remain confused and frustrated.

An extract from the introduction to a book on education for sustainability that stresses the importance of using accessible language says "...a motivating vision of a healthy, sustainable community entails a mixture of radical parochialism, horizontal links across communities and vertical links all the way up to global structures". Clear as mud.

And how about this from an e-learning brochure. "...the end to end business framework for assessment and accreditation as the necessary process requirements for effective e-learning and e-assessment technology implementations and widespread adoption of ubiquitous accredited learning practices within the members states and the target European Research Area".

Or take this extract from a document about key skills. "This service is to be provided in support of the development of longer term infrastructure support of key skills implementation in England. The key skills implementation group, where many of the appropriate partners are represented, has a remit that includes encouragement of co-operative working to aid the implementation and promotion of key skills." Did you count three implementations? Why can't they just say "do it"?

Then there are the acronyms. My first encounter with the term NEETS at a powerpoint presentation left me baffled.

I eventually deduced from the context that it meant Not in Education, Employment or Training. I got it right, that time, but not so at a conference during the Eighties when I had sat through a whole day thinking that TVEI was all about television. (TVEI was the Technical Vocational Educational Initiative.) To be fair, it's not just the learning and skills sector that talks in riddles. Other professions have their own jargon. Lawyers are almost incomprehensible to the outside world, techies seem to inhabit the planet Zog and management is full of meaningless phrases such as "I wasn't wired that way, but it became mission-critical as I strategically focused on my go-forward plan".

The firm Deloitte Consulting have recently produced a CD-Rom package called Bullfighter that analyses written English for its clarity and readability.

The programme will search through text and give it a 'bull index', based on sentence and word length, jargon and transparency of meaning. The lower the score, the higher the bull index. In an analysis by a national newspaper, Harry Potter author J K Rowling, not surprisingly, scored high marks, whereas Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's economic adviser, had one of the lowest scores.

Why does the learning and skills sector, which is charged with making learning accessible, use language that the rest of the world doesn't understand?

Even when the language is plain enough, their precise meaning in a learning and skills context has to be learned. Take the simple phrase "capacity building". Does it mean increasing physical resources, staff numbers or improving the knowledge and skills of existing staff? (It's usually the latter - but you have to know that.) Why the obsession with the language of construction: frameworks, steps, building and architecture? Granted, it is long-winded to have to keep on saying schools, adult and community learning, work-based learning and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all every time you talk about learning providers. But there has to be another way.

The Learning and Skills Development Agency recently produced a publication Learning journeys: learners' voices, which was all about the views of learners on progress and achievement in literacy and numeracy.

Refreshingly, here was language that ordinary people could identify with.

Instead of systems, structures and frameworks, learning was described as a journey.

A fast-track course became "motorway learning" and learning difficulties gained the metaphor of "leaves on the line". Dipping in and out of learning was described as a country lane with pit stops for time out. Suddenly, learning came to life. By contrast, try explaining a curriculum framework using words. The nearest I ever came to understanding it was when a colleague drew a diagram.

I now have a mission to change the language of the learning and skills sector.

Surely a sentence like "This publication outlines the new curriculum framework for providers providing provision for NEETs who need ALS" could easily be rephrased as "This is a book that contains lots of ideas on how to teach reluctant learners".

But what I would really like to do is to collect all the strategic and curriculum frameworks, stick them on a raft with measures and provisions, and send them down the river without a paddle or a provider in sight and get a load of NEETS to sink the wretched thing.

Anne Nicholls is a communications manager in the learning and skills sector. This is her personal view


* A curriculum framework a tent with a syllabus written all over it.

* Stakeholder dialogue trying to reason with a vampire.

* Provision something you buy in a 1950s grocery shop.

* Provider a Victorian man of substance in need of a wife.

* Blended learning put garbage into a processor and digest results.

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