November 2013

The know zone

  • Pensions unpicked
    Thought about retirement yet? However far off it may be, start looking now at your options, says David Binnie. There may be unforeseen complications but also opportunities. More
  • Squeezed middle
    Schools may need to become lean and mean in order to adapt to new funding levels, says Sam Ellis, or they may find themselves facing a budget crisis. More
  • Raising the stakes
    Ofsted judgements look likely to be tougher in key areas under the revised guidance introduced in September, says Jan Webber. And the bar is being set higher for achieving ‘good’. More
  • Leading education
    ASCL exists to reflect and promote the views of its members, which is why ASCL Council is so important. ASCL Council is made up of 148 elected representatives and is the association’s policy-making body, meeting four times a year. Council members represent ASCL at meetings with government officials and other organisations. It is from Council that national officers, including the president, are elected. In each edition of Leader this year, we will spotlight the work of a particular committee of Council. This month, it is the turn of the Education Committee. More
  • Council focus
    What does it mean to be a Council rep? More
  • ASCL PD events
    New to the leadership team, Leadership for Outstanding Performance, and Homerun for Headship More
  • First term almost over
    ASCL Professional Development (PD) offers high-quality, relevant, up-to-date and competitively priced courses. Our training is delivered by a team of skilled trainers and consultants, almost all of whom have been headteachers or senior school leaders. More
  • How do you say?
    Focus on... 1,000-words challenge More
  • Adding value
    Time to protect your pension pot? More
  • Food for thought
    The government plans to spend £600 million on free school meals (FSM) for every child in a state-funded infant school and disadvantaged students in further education. Is this a good idea? Is this money well spent or should it be spent elsewhere? Here ASCL members share their views. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Choice language?
    Would you like IT with your G&T? Or, like Eric Hester, are you bemused by the proliferation of acronyms? More
Bookmark and Share

Would you like IT with your G&T? Or, like Eric Hester, are you bemused by the proliferation of acronyms?

Choice langauge?

Teachers have been told that their very language is opaque, particularly because of the use of acronyms. Certainly, the world of education, as with politics, is full of these acronyms but teachers cannot be blamed and especially not heads.

There was a time when acronyms were distinguished from mere initials: an acronym used initials to make a new and pronounceable word, whereas a simple abbreviation was normally said by pronouncing separately the capitals of which it consisted. So, NATO (Nay-toe) was seen as a genuine acronym, whereas LBW (ell bee double u) was merely called initials.

However, no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) now says that ‘acronym’ may be used for all initials.

I was governor of a local primary school when the LEA’s (local education authority’s) Governor Support Unit (GSU) produced a list of educational acronyms. It consisted of six closely typed pages with one acronym per line. There were not far short of 200 in all.

One problem with acronyms is that they can change their understood meaning. As a boy, I delighted in the steam engines of the LMS (London, Midland and Scottish Railway) and rejoiced when I saw those initials on the agenda of a heads’ meeting in the 1980s. However, by then it had become Local Management of Schools – so no flurries of steam, although plenty of hot air.

IT girls

In my youth, there were girls who were known as ‘IT’ girls – I cannot easily define what they were but they had nothing to do with information technology. Similarly, some years ago, when my secretary said that the director of education was on the telephone wanting to talk about TVEI, thankfully, I just stopped myself referring to television so that he could explain about the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative.

Then there are the cases where the acronym appears to have been thought of first and the words have come along afterwards, perhaps to include humour – a rare enough quality in education bureaucracy. I assume that someone thought that ‘G&T’ (gifted and talented) would, with its reminder of a refreshing drink, grip the attention more than T&G.

But I believe that all of these acronyms come from outside of schools, not from within them. I led the inspection of more than 50 schools for the ISI (the Independent Schools Inspectorate) and I cannot think of a single acronym invented by a school; they all came from external bureaucracies.

This in itself should make us wary of using them; they are extraneous to schools, imposed from the outside.

ISI has editors to check that an RI (reporting inspector) has not made any errors on this front. Like so much of ISI, the rule on acronyms is practical and sensible: all acronyms must be fully explained the first time they are used in a report and then may be used, sparingly, without explanation. Very strict editors would not allow one to get away even with ‘GCSE’ or ‘A level’.

It is said that the first acronym to be known worldwide was ‘Nazi’ closely followed by ‘Gestapo’. Certainly, in that enlightening book by Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, there is special mention of acronyms.

‘Artificial coinage’

Klemperer was a Jewish university lecturer who managed to survive in Nazi Germany, although in labouring jobs, because his wife was German; he studied the language of the Nazis at first hand. He wrote, wisely and critically: “Abbreviation is an entirely artificial coinage, and as much a product of the people as Esperanto. … Whenever a union, organisation or party is involved there will be an abbreviation at hand. ... No linguistic style prior to Hitler’s Germany had made such an exorbitant use of this form.”

Acronyms can be ambiguous, sometimes obscurely so, but sometimes with humour.

When I was a headmaster, I usually signed internal school documents ‘HM’. One boy allegedly saw such a notice and asked a teacher what HM stood for. “His Majesty,” was the reply.

But another teacher pronounced this abbreviation “Hmm”...

Eric Hester was a head for 24 years until his retirement. He was then a reporting inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at ASCL offers a modest honorarium.