‘Bandwagon or Hearse, Flagship or Titanic
Plain Speech or Jargon, Guru or Experienced Practitioner’?
Unfortunately education is too often used as a political pawn which leads to policies that are more driven by short termism determined by the date of the next election. In addition education and training is exposed by successive administrations to a series of superficial and opportunistic views and reform. To add to this unfortunate situation education like politics is dominated and influenced by glib slogans, meaningless jargon, empty rhetoric and headline grabbing mantras. Education is too important to be exposed to these superficial fads and political gimmicks. The rapid growth and influence of government advisers, external consultants and management gurus during the past few decades reflects the continuing commitment of successive governments to the all–pervasive free market philosophy, privatisation and the quango-cracy that still sadly dominates this country.
The culture of quangos, management gurus, slogans and jargon reached its zenith under the New Labour administration. Every initiative and programme was badged ‘new’ – the lessons of history were largely ignored or dismissed because of the ‘new’ political dogma and historical amnesia reigned supreme. Everyone, particularly senior managers in the public sector, was expected to buy-into and comply with government policy. If people did not comply they were pressured to resign or toe the line and the sectors became more homogenous with fewer people willing to innovate or criticise whether constructively or destructively. As a result compliance was the key demand and many people became sycophantic and self-serving. They were not prepared to question the status quo and of equal concern was that the sector attracted people who were not knowledgeable or experience and lacked empathy about technical and commercial education and training.
Most of the New Labour flagships have now sunk without trace and been largely discredited e.g. Vocational Diplomas. New Deal, the Connexions Service (soon to be replaced) etc.-innumerable initiatives have come and gone after massive injections of money with little evidence of benefit or improvement to the educational and training system. Sadly the current coalition government perpetuates and expands on such policies with academies, parent run schools, free schools, specialist schools, coupled with half baked reviews and reforms of the vocational curriculum/qualifications and the re-introduction of technical schools. (They must learn lessons from previous attempts to create such institutions if this questionable initiative goes ahead bearing in mind the growing number of other types of institutions i.e. academies, specialist schools, CTCs, COVEs etc under the mantra of ‘choice’).
The whole culture of short term reforms and reviews, new brand names, political/management speak and the continued existence of a multitude of unaccountable agencies and government advisers creates an educational and training landscape full of ambiguities, contradictions and paradoxes with the resultant confusions and uncertainties, with the net result of hindering improvement. Any significant improvement is highly unlikely amidst this jumble and confusion and this is especially true for the already neglected technical, commercial education and training sectors. Technical and vocational education and training urgently requires a clear, radical and fundamental set of reforms and long term strategy unfettered by political dogma and party politics. The pendulum politics in this country continues to weaken our ability to reform and as a result rebalance, amongst other aspects, its economy, political system, manufacturing base and its education and training systems.
Let’s look at each of the elements and how they contribute to this sorry state of affairs. The first element is that of language and the use of jargon, slogans and mantras that is ultimately counterproductive. The propagators of this language want to create a belief that they are experts and only they know what is required. They believe that information is a focus of power and if you can develop a language that is new and mysterious that makes them look innovative, knowledgeable and important. Over the past few decades a massive range of meaningless expressions have come and gone but sadly whilst they were around and in vogue they created an undeserved and disproportionate importance in the minds of many senior managers in the public and private sectors. Examples of these vacuous and specious expressions abound such as; up-ticking, transparency, mission drift, inclusivity, rightsizing, upside-breakout, engagement (prefixed either by responsible or not responsible), delayering, ‘world class’, government flagship, ‘education, education, education’, the third way’ and so on.
To highlight the paucity of thinking and how much politicians and government departments have become detached from the realities of teaching is shown in a statement from the then Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) as a rallying call to teachers: ‘As leading navigators you are mission critical to achieving robust and effective discharge pathways from the secondary phase of the intensive learning scenario.’ Can you imagine how that would motivate teachers! How pretentious. It is a classic example of a meaningless, pompous and convoluted statement – the Department should have undergone mass colonic irrigation! No wonder it became known as the Department of Curtains and Soft Furnishings! One always knows when a government has lost the plot and run out of ideas when it seeks sanctuary in empty rhetoric, jargon and slogans. They publish lots of glossy, colourful press releases and generate a great deal of noise that will not have any impact or result in any long-lasting improvement.
‘Transparency’ is a good example of an overused word that can create confusion and possible misinterpretation. I have attended conferences and meeting when this term was used over 100 times all in different contexts. A glass technologist would argue that a piece of glass that is truly transparent is invisible! So when a politician states that a process should be transparent it is strictly invisible – surely the opposite of what they actually mean! Why not just say open and clear? Thank goodness many outgoing government jargon such as New Labour flag ships and bandwagons finally ended up as Titanics and hearses respectively! I fear the jargon, mantra and slogan culture will continue under the coalition government and we wait to see the new lexicology of gobbledygook.
Not only does the world of education and training have to contend with ridiculous language but also it has to deal with the invasion of management gurus and external consultants. They bombard institutions with phone calls, emails and literature on everything from the management of human resources, estates, IT to curriculum development and innovation. They create an impression that to ignore this information and their involvement will bring ruin, arguing that they are facilitating the current government policies or latest initiative. Expensive conferences and seminars often supported by government departments allow the gurus to promulgate their particular philosophies. They charge massive fees and inevitably make certain there have to be return visits/conferences because of the incomplete initial specifications that they have drawn up. Too often their own theories and philosophies are short lived and the following year they return with another set of shallow ideas that are often written up as a bestselling book!
Many of these views apply to external consultants especially from the larger consultancy companies who attempt to maximise their income by providing questionable services to the more gullible managers of institutions. Institutions, if they appoint them, are subsequently inundated with reports with vast amounts of data, much of which is already known to the managers but packaged in a seductive fashion. Final reports and recommendations again leave loose ends which require renewed contracts and further expenditure. In addition very often external consultants have no responsibility to the education institutions and one must remember they are just generating income for themselves and/or their companies. So often once their work is done, they leave and it is up to the managers then to try and implement the ideas. I would argue it is far better and ultimately more economic, efficient and effective, even with the limited resources available to them, that managers and senior staff capitalise wherever possible on their own staff to improve the institution’s performance. Interestingly many of the larger companies are often major service providers to the governments of the day so it’s almost a form of a cartel!
Quangos come and go and successive governments constantly state they are going to reduce their number and power but they still seem to exist in spite of a pitiful record of achievement. Vast amounts of money have been paid to these largely unaccountable organisations. As I said in the history of technical education on this website quangos are as useful as an ashtray on a motor bike or a concrete parachute! Let’s hope the current coalition government honours its promise to do reduce significantly the number and also reduce the number of special advisers employed and capitalise on the expertise and experience of people who have worked in the sectors.
In order to address the critical issues facing technical education and training the following actions are urgently required:
Ø Take politics out of education
Ø Carry out a radical and fundamental review of all the education and training sectors involved
Ø Introduce long term strategies, tactics and reforms that are simple , clear and uncluttered by multitudes of agencies, organisations, special advisers and gurus
Ø Cease using unintelligible jargon and slogans and reduce the introduction of meaningless new brand names.Cease the use of meaningless management speak it contributes little to the debates and has largely failed as a lexicology and management tool
Ø Involve employers and practitioners in the reviews, reforms and monitoring of the whole system
Ø Develop a consistent and clear policy on skills and higher level technical and commercial training and how these relate and assist the current exercise to rebalance the national economy
Ø Tackle a long term and serious review of the issues associated with vocational qualifications and once and for all establish a culture that recognises the importance of technical and commercial education and training
Ø Get rid of the so-called academic-vocational divide and create parity of esteem between vocational and the so-called academic qualifications (e.g. ‘A levels)
Ø Give greater freedom to the institutions to manage their own affairs based on sound, coherent, consensual national policies i.e. less interference from government and their agencies
Ø Look for good examples of practice in the other home countries and beyond; less preoccupation with American systems and banish ‘the English know best’ syndrome.