We’re drowning in jargon, from Girfec to Shanarri

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Every new policy seems to bring with it confusing terms, reinforcing a barrier that prevents parents from fully engaging with their child’s schooling, writes Tina Woolnough

What is the difference between interdisciplinary learning and cross-curricular learning? Or between a subject, a discipline and a curricular area? Between a department and a faculty? Between a term, a semester and a session? Between a school report, a learning journal, a personal profile and a pupil progress report? Or between a parents’ evening and a parent consultation? An IEP, PLP, CSP and an ICP? Sometimes nothing, and sometimes everything.

When children start school, parents and families are faced with a barrage of new and unfamiliar words. This specialist vocabulary does two things: it prevents families from understanding the world that their children are entering and it stops them from engaging with that world.

Of course, many professionals have jargon that is peculiar to their workplace; the world of education is no exception. However, if education is a partnership between professionals, families and wider communities, then the partners need to use the same language so that they can communicate. We can then have a shared understanding and shared approaches to support our shared endeavours.

In essence, teaching is communicating – teachers tailor their vocabulary and means of delivery to their audience. How strange it is, then, that the jargon that frames what teachers do is so difficult to understand.

When Curriculum for Excellence was first introduced, a major challenge for professionals and parents alike was the introduction of a raft of new jargon. It was as if using different words for the same things would, by itself, improve those things. New policies and new governments invariably bring in new jargon, for the sake of differentiation.

Some streamlining was essential – before Curriculum for Excellence, it took parents several years of primary school to work out that the old levels went backwards alphabetically – that Level F was a great achievement, even though an F in exams continued to represent “Fail”. However, now we have levels (early to fourth) that bear no correlation to the years that children are in, or the qualifications they may eventually sit, so we have confusion by numbers for parents.

In education policy, dressing old dogs in new clothes, or even new approaches in new words, may create impact and a sense of “newsworthiness” but it definitely keeps us all running in circles trying to keep up with the terminology. At times of change (which is most of the time), parents often have to get to grips with the “old” jargon in order to understand the new words.

Same system, different names

The improvement agenda has brought new names such as the Scottish Attainment Challenge, National Improvement Framework (and Hub) and Regional Improvement Collaboratives. National consultations that are meant to elicit responses from parents and parent groups are almost impenetrable, such as the recent “Empowering Schools: a consultation on the provisions of the Education (Scotland) Bill”.

Words related to additional support for learning also represent significant barriers for parents: staged intervention, coordinated support plans, placing requests, capacity assessments – and many more – mystify and confuse families. It is worth noting that the glossary for parents published by Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning, runs to five pages.

In essence, for parents, children and young people, education jargon describes children’s daily lives. Ever-changing descriptions from an educational perspective are imposed upon these daily lives. So we hear of transitions, wider achievement and the curriculum. In segregating children’s lives in this way, we lose the continuum that is the real-time experience of children and parents. No wonder educators and policymakers now have to talk about using a “whole-child” or “holistic” approach.

At Connect, we often suggest to parent councils that a key part of their role is to act as translators, making sure that all parents in their school know what is going on. We also have a guide to acronyms for parent councils and parent groups. At an event recently, a parent told us how highly she valued our guide. She observed that when she first used it a few years ago, it was two pages long. It now runs to nine pages, although this captures only the most common educational acronyms encountered by parents.

While many of the terms actually do what they say on the tin, they are often reduced to abbreviations and acronyms, creating another linguistic barrier for parents. So we have BGE (broad general education), CA (classroom assistant), CSP (coordinated support plan), ELCC (early learning and childcare centres, formerly nurseries), EYP (early years professional, formerly a nursery nurse), Girfec (Getting it Right for Every Child), PEF (Pupil Equity Fund) and the epic Shanarri (safe, healthy, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible, included).

As an organisation working in education, Connect has to guard against assuming knowledge and understanding – one parent asked us what “curriculum” means. Why should a parent know the meaning of a Latin word that is not used in any other context? We must not assume knowledge, and we should always use language that is in everyday usage.

In February, we changed our name from SPTC (Scottish Parent Teacher Council) to Connect because we have campaigned for decades against education jargon, acronyms and abbreviations but had become one ourselves. The name may now be different, but we continue to do what we say on our tin – connect parents and educators to benefit children’s learning – as we have done for 70 years. And to do this, we all need to communicate effectively.

Tina Woolnough is communications officer for Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council)

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