Jargon-loving officials sent back to school

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The Independent Online
Government education officials are being given lessons in the use of plain English after a study found that the texts of Britain's flagship job-training qualifications were riddled with obscure jargon and mangled grammar.

So far 130 people involved in writing material for National Vocational Qualifications have been sent back to school for "workshops on language issues". They have been taught how to explain NVQs in a way that is more likely to attract potential trainees than to send them scurrying for their dictionaries, or put them off entirely.

In NVQ-speak, information is not given but "imparted", and when a mistake is made the result is not a correction but a "rectifying action". Trainees are expected to "action" tasks and to "originate evidence" - if they can find their way through the literature.

NVQs, launched 10 years ago, offer work-based training in areas ranging from hairdressing to engineering, based on industry-set standards. The Government wanted all employers to offer them by 2000, but so far only 7 per cent do so. By that date, 60 per cent of the workforce were to be trained to NVQ level 3 or equivalent, but only 40 per cent have reached that standard.

A report on NVQs published earlier this year amid fears over standards said that candidates were deterred by "complex, jargon-ridden language", while a computer analysis of the phrases and vocabulary used found they bore little relation to everyday English.

Details of the language lessons emerged in a written parliamentary answer from the education and employment minister James Paice. Mr Paice said that those attending the classes had included 27 officials from the Department for Education and Employment, 56 people from bodies which accredit vocational qualifications, and 47 representatives of industry bodies, including 12 consultants. He confirmed in an answer to the Labour education spokesman Bryan Davies that the cost of the workshops was pounds 116,000.

Researchers analysing the texts of the qualifications on behalf of the department fed all 2 million words from the database of current NVQs into a computer and compared them with a database of 200 million words from newspapers, magazines, books and broadcasting.

The study revealed that details of the standards trainees were expected to reach were often phrased in an opaque or ambiguous way, while the grammar employed dispensed with the tried and tested conventions of subject, verb and object.

Mr Davies yesterday condemned the need to spend taxpayers' money on training officials "how to write properly". He said: "It is quite extraordinary that those responsible for educating people in basic communication skills need to take lessons themselves in how to communicate."

Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University, a leading critic of NVQs, claimed that confusion had arisen after consultants were used to "translate" standards set by employers into qualifications terminology.

He said: "It gets in the way of what the employers and candidates want and is a big digression from the essential purpose of these qualifications."

Obscure language is one of the key criticisms levelled at NVQs, which have also come under fire for being expensive, too undemanding and unpopular. The qualifications, a central part of the Government's drive to improve Britain's skills base and competitiveness, are to be relaunched this spring in an attempt to increase take-up.

The words that leave students dazed

Two examples of 'performance criteria':

From NVQ level 3 in engineering assembly:

'Materials presented to the assembly operation are completely compliant with the operational specification.'

From NVQ level 2 in care:

'The forms which discrimination may take and the behaviours which may be expressions of these and that discrimination is not restricted to particular groups in society.'

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