How education jargon hurts children

Teachers’ growing addiction to acronyms alienates parents and pushes complex questions into ready-made pigeonholes

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

14 November 2015

9:00 AM

‘Excuse me, sir. Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn’t we keep the PC on the QT? ’Cause if it leaks to the VC he could end up MIA, and then we’d all be put out in KP.’

How I cheered when Airman Adrian Cronauer mocked Lt Steven Hauk’s fondness for acronyms in Good Morning, Vietnam. Using jargon is an act of unconscionable self-indulgence. It is designed to make the user feel superior while saying not much, and Adrian, played by the late Robin Williams, spoke for millions of cheesed-off employees when he attacked it.

Jargon, acronyms and corporate-speak — all too common in offices — should be banned from schools. But to my horror (I am a teacher in an east London state school) over the decade I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen all sorts of horrible acronyms become common in both the staffroom and the classroom.

SEN, Progress 8, value added, IEP, EBD, FSM, ADD, ADHD, flight paths, EP and EAL. Unless you’ve studied the weird new education language, you haven’t a hope of understanding what teachers — or other people in the education business — are on about, and I sometimes think this is the point. It means baffled parents, who don’t know an FSM from an IEP, can’t hold teachers to account. It’s a far cry from the government’s expressed aim of empowering parents and giving them choice.

But there’s another, more alarming problem with jargon in education. It means complex problems are pigeonholed and oversimplified and, in the process, misdiagnosed. Take attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If this isn’t a case of the concept leading the response, I don’t know what is. Teachers, teaching assistants (TAs) and pastoral staff are forever stuffing children into the box marked ADHD. We tell the parents, who call the doctor, who prescribes the drugs. But children can be inattentive for a hundred more complicated reasons. If ADHD weren’t available as a catch-all diagnosis, we’d have to try harder to understand each child.

English as an additional language (EAL) is another concept that drives practice. In my experience, many so-called EAL pupils speak excellent English, but now that there’s a handy label, teachers are forever applying it to pupils. Once you’re EAL, you’ll be forced to have an IEP (individual education plan) and if you fall a bit below your designated FP (flight path) you could end up in the humiliating SEN (special educational needs) category.

Just the existence of the phrase ‘flight path’ in schools is dangerous; it creates the false impression that pupils progress in a linear fashion. This can have unforeseen and deeply troubling consequences. If a pupil’s making EP (expected progress) in, say, chemistry, or, better still, EP+1 (better progress than EP), he’s on or above his designated FP (which is based on KS2 data — exhausting, isn’t it?). When a teacher sees ‘EP+1’ he knows he no longer has to push the pupil. EP+1 means the child has exceeded his target. That he may be capable of getting an A grade becomes largely irrelevant. If his FP states an expected C, and the pupil received a B, the teacher has ‘added value’ and the school’s statistics have benefited. So why push him any further? According to the law of the jargon it’s unnecessary. Everyone’s happy, aren’t they?

No they’re not. I’ve seen more than one instance of a pupil deciding, two years down the line, that he wants to aim higher. He wants to train as a doctor, say, but he can’t because he needed that A in chemistry — and nobody pushed him. Management-speak and fancy-sounding acronyms create a world of false targets, when the real target should be the needs and desires of children.

My personal favourite is the word ‘innovation’. Schools, in particular their ‘senior leaders’, have become obsessed with innovation. They demand innovation constantly, for the sake of innovating — so as to be seen to be ‘thinking outside the box’. This means they alter anything and everything on a whim. In my last school, the length of the school day, the lesson times and the lunch break were all changed for no reason, just so as to innovate. You can imagine the chaos and confusion.

Once again, my school was responding to a fashion rather than the needs of the children. The jargon has become a tyranny rather than a tool. This must change. Oh for Airman Adrian Cronauer to teach us all to speak English again.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Joe Baron is a pseudonym.

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  • Revd Robert West

    Yes, schools are filled with jargon and managerialese, and also with political korrectnoss and propaganda, especially on Islam; and not just in Birmingham too.

    Have you heard of the Abrahamic Faiths project? I hadn’t until I unwittingly contradicted it in a history lesson on the Crusades. Apparently, Islam and Christianity are compatible, even comparable; and anyone who says otherwise is a ‘raaaaaycist”, and is liable to be banned-for-life from teaching, as I, happily, was.

    In addition to this so many parts of the curriculum are so unmasculine, and so dumbed-down, that not only the boys, but even the girls, are now attention-deficient (switching off in plain talk). I am not surprised.

  • rtj1211

    It was ever thus. My father, who almost became a professional actor, had a well honed skit he used to use when speaking to teachers, inspectors or civil servants in education. He was doing that in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

    He called the jargon speak ‘educanto’. It was really along the lines of him mimicking Sir Humphrey in Educanto, then getting Jim Hacker to translate.

    My father was the unusual case of being an educational Sir Humphrey whilst speaking in the manner of Jim Hacker. He abhorred long words for the sake of them and called a spade a spade.

    Here’s what I would tell Parents:

    SATs at 7 tell you and me how well your child has progressed in the first three years at school. It’s appallingly arbitrary, I know, but the blasted politicians need some kind of semi-quantitative feedback and my eye-witness accounts of ‘David is fine in reading, writing and arithmetic, he’s not really very imaginative yet and is really rather appalling at art, pottery, collage and woodwork. He gets on well with his classmates, has appropriate friendships in the playground and seems to enjoy games both with the boys and with the girls. All in all, he’s a normal kid, but perhaps we could focus a bit more on why he doesn’t like creative arts?’ simply won’t do as they don’t fit the options of an excel spreadsheet number crunching exercise. And as we all know, what you need to know is far less important than what the politicians need to know, isn’t it?!

    I”d actually like to test all children when they come to school, not to badge you as parents but simply so we have a baseline for where we are starting from. Some of the children already read and some can barely tie their shoe laces. Some are right little madams and some to be honest have missed out on some of the emotional bonding of the pre-school age. But miraculously, all 4 or 5 year olds are supposed to be some identikit clone who can do this, that and the other. The fact that that is off-with-the-fairies nonsense doesn’t seem to register with the educational press, the nightmare parents who want to order us all about and the blasted politicians who see education as a political football to get themselves a £50k a year rise in salary……

    Course, if any teacher were recorded saying that in reality, they might be in for a frightful wigging from the Head……even if everything they said was the Common Sense that is so despised and ostracised in so many places of work these days…….

  • rickleeds

    Sorry but if a school or a teacher followed any of the applied practice above I – a primary practitioner for 20 years – suggest that school or teacher is failing their pupils, parents, collegues, etc (given the content of the article I hesitate to use the catch-all phrase stakeholders!) Jargon and abbreviations are fine among professionals; they should NEVER be used with pupils, parents, etc who we should not be expecting to understand them. Any school/teacher doing so is failing to provide information usefully.
    If a teacher decides ANY pupil should not be stretched to meet her/his full potential, no matter what her/his attainment or achievement suggests, then that teacher is failing in her/his responsibility to that pupil. Using attainment data as an excuse is feeble.
    In the same way, whatever label is applied to a pupil for educational reasons, often because one criterion or another can be ticked, teachers and schools MUST treat that pupil as an individual and respond to her/his achievement. If a label is being used to define a pupil that is discriminatory practice.
    Simply because these (admittedly frustrating) aspects within education exist doesn’t mean they have to be used as is suggested in this article. Schools and teachers have to jump through certain hoops to survive these days but that shouldn’t be passed on to the people they serve.

  • Sean Grainger

    Great. More please

  • 5Rozel

    My son has ADHD, diagnosed when he was seven, he is now 13. His school, an excellent state comprehensive (Catholic) were managing him fine until the EP (educational psychologist, do keep up!) was called in. EP recommended a behaviour plan, without meeting my son, not bespoke. School has to follow it. It’s a disaster. Son falling further behind in school work, behaviour deteriorating, anxiety rocketing. When the school was left to it they treated him as an individual, according to his needs, based on their understanding of him. He may now get an EHC and an IHP. Son and I are WPO (well p***** off).

  • George Szynkaruk

    Excellent article. My children’s primary school is now heavily into the concept of ‘mastery’ which hasn’t stopped it being in the bottom twenty per cent of primary schools nationally. The real scandal is that school ‘leaders’ always blame parents and children for their own failings.