At what point does a stock phrase become a target for derision? We saw it in the last election when Theresa May tried to convince the electorate that she would provide ‘strong and stable’ government. And how can we forget the ‘magic money tree’?
Much more enduring, however, is the cliché cut-and-pasted into almost every announcement from the Department for Education (DfE). It’s this:
‘1.9million more children now in good or outstanding schools than in 2010’
Since the beginning of the year, a mere six weeks away, there have been around 30 DfE announcements. Not all relate to schools – one is about foster care, for example, one is about expanding UK universities into Egypt and others concern apprenticeships or further education.
But at least 14 of the remaining announcements contain some variation of the phrase. Sometimes more than once. The DfE press release about a visit of the new Education Secretary Damian Hinds to a Cambridgeshire primary school contained two outings of the familiar formula.
It’s not just Hinds who is reported to have repeated these words. Schools minister Nick Gibb regularly trots them out; former Education Secretary Justine Greening repeated them twice in an announcement before the cabinet reshuffle; education minister Nadhim Zahawi echoed them and school systems minister Lord Agnew stuck to the script.
It rather gives the impression that ministers are ventriloquist dummies programmed to say the same statistic again and again and again.
It may be, of course, that the ministers didn’t say what the DfE media department says they said. In January, a DfE press release quoted words attributed to Damian Hinds. But the passages, which included the oft-repeated ‘1.9 million more children….’, weren’t in Hinds’ speech.
It isn’t untrue to say that 1.9 million more children are in good or outstanding schools since 2010. But this figure is affected by changes in the way Ofsted inspects schools as Full Fact pointed out. Some of the outstanding schools haven’t been inspected for eight, nine or ten years. Ofsted plans to discuss these ‘unusually long gaps’ – and not before time.
Repeat a phrase too much and it becomes an object of derision. This is a pity because such repetition undermines the substance of an announcement. For example, Hinds visited schools, colleges, training providers, multi-academy trusts, social workers and council leaders during a three-day tour of the Midlands and the North of England. But the importance of this visit seems to have been viewed by the DfE media department as just another opportunity to spew out the same statistic.
It’s lazy padding. And it’s constant repetition deflects attention from the looming crises in English education: inadequate funding and problems with the recruitment and retention of teachers.
All announcements can be downloaded here.