When all you know is too much;Last Word;Opinion

8th May 1998 at 01:00
TWO pieces of advice from more seasoned colleagues in my early days in journalism have stood me in good stead since, though neither forms part of any reputable training course, so far as I know.

The first dates from a crisis of nerves the day before I started on a national newspaper, when my then boyfriend assured me that the important thing was never to flap a notebook in someone's face, especially if they didn't want to be interviewed.

The second came several years on, when both my newspaper and my ambitions had moved upmarket, from diary columns to in-depth investigations. "Don't put down everything you know," warned my editor gloomily, as I approached my typewriter and several yards of background analysis.

This is where writing to inform the general public differs from writing school or college essays, where the aim is indeed to put down everything you know in order to impress your teacher or examiner. When you grow up, however, the trick is to persuade your readers - be they your bosses, the public, colleagues or clients - that they want to read what you have to say, and to do that you have to be selective, ruthless and cut out the clutter.

The critical experience that I took away from my second guru in the early, great days of The Sunday Times Insight team was to home in on the key facts, use detail only to illuminate, and give readers signposts to guide them through a long narrative. If the message isn't accessible, not many will bother to read on.

I doubt if many people in education think that there are lessons to learn from journalists, but I was reminded of my hard-earned practical skills the other day when working my way through a heap of assorted vision statements and school aims. The kind that every school must have at the heart of development plans and brochures.

The selection had been provided as exemplary and was packed full of the usual cliches, from "develop the potential of each child" to "tolerance and understanding"; "sound moral foundation" and "stimulating, challenging environment". Of course none of those principles deserves to be chucked out, but if they were rephrased more crisply, and rescued from rambling, wordy documents, they would hit a fresher note.

The trouble is that the teachers and governors who toiled in committee to write these statements have too often felt compelled to put down everything they knew, sometimes several times over, and usually in a pompous "suitable" form. But if you haven't got the confidence to sub it down to essentials, so that it can be displayed in bullet points on one sheet of A4 for the notice board or brochure, prospective parents won't read to the end, teachers will stuff it in a drawer, and OFSTED eyes will glaze over.

No wonder teachers are in revolt over bureaucracy, I went on to reflect, if all the paperwork they are engaged with proliferates so counter-productively. I suspect that the problem lies not so much with the accountability imperative that rightly focuses schools on aims and targets, and recording their achievement, but on failure at all levels to streamline the process.

Part of the solution lies in teachers' own hands. As with the vision thing, they must keep their response to the point and never write more than they have to. Their recipients will thank them. The main culprits, however, are the civil servants and agencies who devise and multiply ridiculously long forms with repetitious, ambiguous questions that take all day to decode. Some of the worst examples I have seen broke the spirit of volunteer playgroup leaders, who would have found the time far better spent with the children in their care.

I hope this last group is not forgotten by ministers when the bonfire of bureaucracy is finally lit, but it is not going to be easy. Retraining officials to be succinct will require a major cultural shift, and teachers and governors may have to break lifetime habits too. Really, it all needs to start with the school curriculum and more short, transactional essays.

I wish I could offer hope that millennial technology will cut the effort along with the paperwork; but I have my doubts. I heard the other day that the standards task force is talking about disseminating examples of good practice through the national grid for learning. So you won't have to write it down on paper. If you are proud of what you are doing, why not just key it in? It will only take a minute.

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