The shiny world of New Labour speak

4th August 2000 at 01:00
THAT which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet. An outside toilet with no plumbing and a handy shovel would still smell of excrement if you called it a place d'aisement and your accent was bien chic.

Education is beset by an appalling epidemic of verbal gentrification. Our masters' idea of verbal precision is to decide when a word crosses the boundary between a hurrah-word and a boo-word; and then to find another.

The trend was in its infancy when the then education secretary Kenneth Baker decided that "school" was rapidly coming to mean a concrete wilderness full of sex-mad drug-crazed teenagers. He had two choices. He could improve schools. Or he could call some of them colleges, so that everyone would see them as oases of academic calm, where smart uniformed children said "Yes, sir" and "Could you please direct me to the library, sir?"

Thus were born city technology colleges.

The inevitable happened. A college came to mean a concrete wilderness filled with sex-mad drug-crazed teenagers. "College" became what the Prime Minister's pollster Philip Gould calls a contaminated brand, just like the "new" in "New Labour", and David Blunkett had to up the linguistic stakes. We are now promised city academies.

Everyone knows that an academy is a place where well-brought-up young ladies do ladylike things in a mature and considered way. In time, of course, it will decay, but I am sure someone in the DFEE has written down and filed away the word conservatoire.

It was Baker, too, who saw polytechnics clamouring to be allowed to call themselves universities. Soon, Central London Poly was the University of Westminster and sprouted a portcullis for a logo to indicate that it had been around at least as far back as Henry the Somethingth, if not further. They banded together as the Coalition of Modern Universities. I think the effect was supposed to be ivy-covered e-commerce. Most people still think of them as former polys.

Since New Labour has been in power, the disease has escalated out of control.

No longer satisfied with doctoring individual words, New Labour has taken to putting collections of feelgood words in a row and calling it a sentence.

The New Local Government Network, disciples of the New Labour thnktank Demos, specialists in cuddly words to hide ugly realities, has advocated abolishing local education authorities. But in this new world you don't abolish anything.

So having explained that schools ought to have nothing to do with LEAs, and LEAs should have nothing to do with education, they explain why this heralds a new and exciting world for those LEAs: "Working to local community learning strategies, diverse learning networks would draw strength from partnership working, an empowered teaching profession and the strategic leadership of modern local government."

That sentence would mean the same if you put the words in a hat and wrote them down in the order you happened to pull them out. "Empowered working community networks and strategic partnership strength would draw local learning in modern strategies" These days, you have to write that way in order to get anything out of government. I once spent a depressing day thumbing through the applications to run Education Action Zones. The same words came tumbling out, one after another: dynamic, partnership, community, empower, frontiers, learning, flexible, challenge.

Here's a list of "strategic intents" from one bid: "join schools together in a dynamic partnership with the community, parents, young people and business...raise expectations and empower parents... empower partners to respond flexibly..."

The verbal corrosion has now reached the classroom teacher. The instructions accompanying the forms they have to fill in to become advanced skills teachers, or to cross the pay threshold, are designed to ensure, not that they are any good, but that they can use politically correct language.

And that's serious. If education bosses want to deprive their language of meaning, then perhaps wading through verbal porridge is all they are good for.

But if teachers are forced to do it, sooner or later they will teach like it. I do not want my children to grow up in the world of the advertising huckster: a world where all beaches are sunsoaked and all hotels an hour's stroll from them, where all menus feature desserts that are mouth-watering and bread that is crusty.

Francis Beckett is a journalist and author of The Rebel who Lost His Cause, published by Allison and Busby

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