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Jargon, bullying and deceit - this is education on ration

Education chiefs from Derbyshire County Council might have thought they had an easy fight when they proposed closing Combs Infant School in the High Peak. It is the smallest infant school in Derbyshire. Only 26 pupils, a handful of families, a small rural population … what could they do?

But there's a shock for the Matlock mandarins. One of Britain's toughest and most experienced campaigners has rolled up her sleeves and joined the battle. Chrissie Maher, founder-director of the world famous Plain English Campaign - and a resident of Combs - has an interest in the school's future.

One grandchild already goes there, and loves it. A second grandchild will start in the autumn. And a third grandchild - due to be born in October - will attend if this wonderful school remains open.

Chrissie said: "We're fighting for the next generation, as well as the children who attend this lovely little school. I'm right alongside the mums and dads - including my son Peter and his wife Liz - who refuse to let the civil servants put an end to the school."

Chrissie pulled no punches in her attack on the Derbyshire education authority. She accused them of:

  • Jargon, bullying and deceit.
    "I did my early campaigning in Tuebrook, Liverpool, a deprived inner city area. Officialdom treated ordinary people with contempt. Over 30 years later, you don't expect that in a nice rural village like Combs. But officialdom is still the same - get the 'victims' off guard, shock everyone with the speed of the plans, and use gobbledygook and jargon in the reports. Then, after talking about consultation, let the cat out of the bag and say the plan is to close the school."
  • Putting education on ration.
    "The council keep talking about the high cost of educating children at Combs - £5,447 a year compared with the county average of £2,635. They tried the same argument with Stoney Middleton school, but the school fought back and today we hear they have won. "This is education on ration. If you go to a little school in a rural area - however wonderful that school is - the authority wants to pull you down to average or mediocre. And to hell with the prospects of the children."
  • A kick in the teeth for Ofsted.
    "It was only last September that Ofsted produced its report on Combs - 'an outstanding school' they called it, with 'outstanding value for money'. So why kick Ofsted in the teeth as well as the school? And why now? Were they planning the closure even last year when Ofsted went to Combs and handed out Grade 1 in every category? Don't Derbyshire want standards raising? Wouldn't they rather other schools tried what Combs has successfully done? Derbyshire's message to the children, teachers and parents is that Ofsted doesn't matter. It's money that matters. Truly a case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing!"
  • Betrayal of a generation of children.
    "It's such a little school, that every child knows every other child. They are the future of the village and the valley. They have the security of friendship and very good teachers. If Combs closes, children could be scattered into several schools. What's that going to do to them, after the best start youngsters could get anywhere in Britain? We support the governors, the parents and the wider community in saying Save Our School."
  • Condemning a rural community to slow death. "Combs is such a small community. There is no shop, no post office, one pub, and the school. It uses the church hall, the only public building in the whole valley. If the school goes, the rent to the trustees goes, then maybe the hall itself would no longer be viable. If the children go, the spark would go out of the village. During the day, you would never hear kids singing in the school. Derbyshire wants to dump the Combs children in Chapel. Well, we don't. We want to keep them here and give the village a future."

PEC quiz council about 'school closure gobbledygook'

Plain English Campaign (PEC) has challenged Derbyshire County Council to explain why it has used 'gobbledygook, obscure words, woolly thinking and inaccurate statements' in communications with villagers in Combs.

PEC asks why it took the council 151 words to say to parents: 'There will be a meeting at Combs Infant School on Tuesday May 22 at 6.30pm to discuss the future of the school. Derbyshire County Council is considering closing the school to save money.'

The council's long introduction to the letter received by parents on May 9 is just one of the points being queried in Plain English Campaign's reply to David Humphrey, the council's Head of Development. More gobbledygook occurs in a document sent to school governors in the council's attempt to assist them.

Here is an example: 'However, the Strategy recognised that there are many alternative strategies for addressing surplus places and that these may be necessary in instances where no individual project at a single school could address the problem; when an area perspective indicated that a review across numbers of schools was required the solution may involve all schools.'

Elsewhere the council uses words like 'cohorts' and 'discontinuance' and clumsy phrases such as 'commitment of resources', which, says Plain English Campaign, means 'expense.' PEC asks Mr Humphrey to explain 'net capacity' at the school. Does this mean number of pupils? Is there a 'gross capacity'? What is the 'published admission number'? What is 'PLASC 2007 (% surplus)'?

PEC's founder-director Chrissie Maher, who lives in Combs and has a grandchild at the school, says 'One inaccuracy is their statement that our children progress to Chapel-en-le-Frith Primary School. In fact not one child from Combs has gone there in the past eight years. If they cannot express themselves clearly, and make inaccurate statements, how do we know they are thinking clearly? It looks as though gobbledygook is once again swamping common sense, clarity and good government.'

Governor of Florida introduces plain language initiative

The Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, has introduced a 'plain language' initiative within the state, to ensure that documents and other communications issued by his office are as clear and concise as possible. The initiative, contained in an Executive Order issued in January, extends to any other agencies under the Governor's control.

Documents must include

  • Clear language that is commonly used by the intended audience;
  • Only the information needed by the recipient, presented in a logical sequence;
  • Short sentences written in the active voice that make it clear who is responsible for what; and
  • Layout and design that help the reader understand the meaning on the first try (including adequate white space, bulleted lists, and helpful headings).

Governor Crist writes on his website that

'It needs to be clear that the people are the boss of state government, not the other way around. In the business world, a business would not be successful if those responsible for making important decisions could not understand what the employees were saying. It is not too much to ask us to speak clearly to our employers.'

We were delighted to hear about this move. Is it too much to hope that other states and departments will follow Governor Crist's example?

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