Letter written to the Director of the VRQA, in response to a letter from her concerning the operations of Candlebark school.
September 12, 2011
Dear Ms Glover,
I am writing to you about your letter of August 12, about the VRQA inspection of Candlebark. I will address your concerns about the operations of the school separately and appropriately, but I also feel it important that I write to you about the tone or style with which the VRQA – as exemplified by your letter – communicates with me and our school.
In his famous book Plain Words, published in 1948, Sir Ernest Gowers “suggested certain elementary rules for public officials. They were ‘ be short, be simple, be human”’. He admits that he “can claim no novelty for my advice”, explaining that “similar precepts were laid down for the Egyptian Civil Service some thousands of years ago”: among them were these: “Be courteous and tactful as well as honest and diligent… Preserve dignity but avoid inspiring fear.’”
A lot of attention has been paid in the last decade or two to communication. `Yes Minister’ has satirised `civil-service speak’ with deadly accuracy, exposing its disconnection from real life and real people. In Australia, Don Watson has written two powerful and well-publicised books, giving thousands of examples of the toxicity of this kind of language.
In ‘Death Sentence: the Decay of Public Language’, Watson quotes phrases such as “we are committed to providing information to all our stakeholders in a clear and open way”. He goes on to say “there is no room in this sanctimonious clag for the light of the imagination. There is no room for a feeling properly felt. There is no room for an `other’– which with writing is usually the reader. You cannot tell if the author of the words is genuine or not because they have no author. They are ritual words. It is as if, like someone with schizophrenia or depression, they’re not quite of the real world. They have forgotten the language the rest of us speak.”
Watson speaks of the absence of “any signs of human sympathy in public language”. He adds:
“It was not unknown a while ago for officials to conclude their letters by wishing unsuccessful applicants and the like ‘good luck’; by ‘hoping’… they would meet success, and ‘thank you for applying’. I saw these sorts of words a few years ago in a letter from a Dublin office, and the feelings of lightness and goodwill they inspired were remarkable. It should not be difficult to reinstate such simple civilities, but half a generation of deadly decline would first have to be unlearned.
“What we can be sure of is that once this kind of language gets inside a company it spreads like duck weed down every channel of communication. Both private and public sector employees will tell you that they write like this because the boss does, or because everyone else does. And because corporate and government speeches and policies are often composed by teams, or by chains stretching from the department, to an office, to a leader; and nowhere on the chain or in the team is there someone with a duty to think deeply or imaginatively about the subject, and write thoughtfully and imaginatively about it, the speeches and policies are indeed nailed together in prefabricated bits like one of Orwell’s hen-houses, and come out as witless and unfathomable dreck.”
I’m sorry to say that communications from the VRQA generally do not rise above the standards described by Don Watson. Take one word: it seems that we received not a visit from the VRQA but a `visitation’ as Mr XYZ (*name changed for purposes of this publication on the Web, to protect the bureaucrat involved, though God knows why I bother) and the inspectors term it. What is the difference between a “visitation” and a ”visit”? Well, In “Modern English Usage”, 1926, which could fairly be called the bible of our language, Henry Fowler defined the word ‘visitation’ in these terms: “once a formal word for visiting, as in the Prayer Book Service for the Visitation of the Sick, is now little used except for official visits of inspection, especially ecclesiastical, by someone in authority, and for an affliction attributed to divine or other supernatural agency:” Quite recently this definition was echoed by Don Watson in his “Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Clichés, Cant and Management Jargon”, when he wrote that a visitation was a visit, “particularly of an official, ordained, calamitous or supernatural kind.” As an example of the mangled way in which the word is sometimes used nowadays he quotes the Surf Coast Shire Bulletin of 2003, which contained the sentence “Council Arts Development Officer says visitation to the toilet block has risen significantly since the installation of the murals.”
Why use language that is so ponderous, archaic and intimidating? It ignores the advice of Sir Ernest Gowers to “be human”. It leaves the VRQA vulnerable to the charge that it wants to intimidate.
Take the following two paragraphs from your letter of 12 August. (I have retained your punctuation, even though it is incorrect).
“Having regard to the not compliant and partially compliant matters identified in the attached report and appendix 1, I have determined pursuant to section 4.3.4 (1) of the ETR Act that the school does not fully comply with the prescribed minimum standards for registration.
“I am also satisfied pursuant to section 4.3.3 (4) of the ETR Act that it is in the interests of students enrolled at the school and also in the public interest, that the following conditions should be imposed on the registration of the school.”
This is as Watson describes: language without an author, language which lacks any signs of human sympathy, language which leaves no room for a reader.
It’s not just the language however; it’s something much more profound than that. We – you and I – work in the field of education. From the day I entered a CAE to begin a teaching course in 1976 I was taught the importance of being positive. The devastating effects of negativity, well substantiated by long-term, almost universal research, were made clear to us. Those lessons could be summed as `negativity breeds negativity, positive energy generates positive energy.’
We are, I would have thought — the VRQA and Candlebark — committed to the same cause: improving the quality of Victorian education. Why then does the VRQA not approach schools in a spirit of co-operation, seeking to bring out the best in them?
On your website you say that you practise RITE values. RITE apparently stands for Respect and Diversity, Integrity, Transparency and Empowerment. In my experience, the more organisations spout this kind of ghastly rubbish, the less likely they are to practise them. Under the heading Transparency, you say “We ensure that stakeholders have access to high quality information about education.” I don’t know who your stakeholders are. I’m pretty sure that schools can’t be among them. You seem to make no attempt to provide us with any information at all. There are a few hints in the inspectors’ report as to some paths we could follow but the general tone of your communications is remote and unhelpful.
You write in your 2009-2010 Annual report that all members of the VRQA staff are committed to DEECD people principles, which include a principle expressed as “Respect and Value Others.” I would call this a breathtakingly dishonest statement. There is no suggestion in your letter that you value us in any way. In the same Annual Report you discuss the results of your client survey. You write: “The area of stakeholder engagement and satisfaction with services had a 63 per cent overall satisfaction rating. The responses indicated that ease of dealing with relevant staff, response to requests and response times in processing applications require attention.”
Nearly four out of every ten of your clients think you are performing at an inadequate level! If I had a 63% satisfaction rate from children, parents, and teachers at Candlebark I would resign.
Perhaps you would achieve a higher client satisfaction result if you approached your clients in a positive, courteous and friendly way.
I am writing about the VRQA as though it were a real person or creature, with feelings and an intellect. But of course it is not that. It is an abstract entity. At the same time, it is a body of people, of which you are the head, and for which you set the tone.
That tone was quickly discernible in the visit by Mr XYZ to Candlebark. Mr XYZ began his visit with a speech that I found astonishingly negative. He explained that he had come only so that he could make this speech; he would then return to his office. He told us that schools were placed in three categories by the VRQA. The first category was for schools considered certain to pass. He said that these schools were not visited: desktop inspections sufficed for them. The other two categories were `possible fails’ and `likely to fail’. Some schools in the second category got visits, and all schools in the third category were visited.
As you can imagine we waited in breathless anticipation to hear our classification. Mr XYZ then announced that we were in the third category.
I said to him: “Well, that’s a very hostile opening.”
He replied: “I’m simply explaining the situation.”
I asked him: “How have you come to this conclusion?”
“I’m about to tell you,” he replied, and he went on to do so. There were apparently two main areas of concern. These were, firstly, Candlebark’s lack of a governing body, and secondly, the fact that several policies (primarily a mandatory reporting policy) were missing from the paperwork we had sent in.
The first “problem” Mr XYZ raised, Candlebark’s “lack” of a governing body, seemed rather a thorny issue, given that no sooner had he mentioned it than he hastened to assure us that there is no statutory requirement that a school should have a governing body. This made it somewhat bizarre that he would have it first on his list of reasons for expecting us to fail the inspection.
The second issue Mr XYZ raised – the lack of a few policies, or to be more correct, sections of policies – could have been easily dealt with by a one-sentence email from VRQA to us pointing out that these documents had not been received. We could then have supplied them. This would have been a helpful, money-saving and – to use business parlance – customer-friendly way of dealing with the situation.
My own view for what it is worth is that the number of policies schools are now required to have militates against their being of any use: there are so many of them that we end up drowning in a sea of blah. When it comes to issues like mandatory reporting it seems farcical that a school has to have a policy to say that it will follow the law. The law of Victoria requires mandatory reporting of child abuse, as the word `mandatory’ indicates. If we have to have a mandatory reporting policy, then we might as well have policies prohibiting murder, manslaughter, shoplifting and arson.
Mr XYZ’s approach however is consistent with the tone of your letter of August 12. It seems to me that you could have quite easily written us a letter like this:
Dear Mr Marsden,
The inspectors have now finished their report on Candlebark. It was a pleasure to read their comment that the school takes “a very positive approach to the care, safety and welfare of the students”, and their observations of the positive relationships between staff and students.
However, I do want to raise with you some areas in which we would like to see some changes to the way the school does things. In particular:
We need to see boundaries for bushwalking defined. We’re worried that there’s nothing in the bushwalking policy that sets limits on the areas the children can explore. For example, are they allowed beyond the school boundaries? The procedures for children reporting out and in when they go on bushwalks need to be tightened.
The Victorian government stipulates that a second language must be taught at every level of primary and secondary school, so Candlebark should have a LOTE programme for all its classes. If there are difficulties in doing this, please let us know.
It’s important also that you do more to address Information and Communication Technology and Design and Technology KLA’s. We need to see a P-9 programme for this.
We still don’t have a set of audited financial results for 2010 – could you let me know when this will be available please?
And so on.
This is I think the way most people in 2011 communicate with each other. It’s certainly the way most schools have learnt to communicate with parents, staff and children – and the ones who haven’t learnt this can be regarded as having serious communication issues. And yet here is the VQRA, the body responsible for registering the schools of Victoria, apparently incapable of observing these simple courtesies. I don’t think it would take any extra work on your part to write this kind of letter. But the change in the relationship between VRQA and the schools of Victoria might well be immediate and far-reaching. And your satisfaction ratings might improve.
There may occasionally be a need for you to write the kind of legalistic, formal letter that you have sent us. But the tone of your letter is a complete mismatch with the kind of cooperation and courtesy that we have at all times extended to your staff during the inspection process.
A considerable amount of time and expense for both parties (in your case, ‘taxpayers’ money’, as people are so fond of saying) could have been saved by the VRQA adopting a less-bureaucratic, less-cumbersome, less-officious approach to any issues you believe might exist at Candlebark. In other words, a lighter touch was called for. Instead, your heavy-handed approach has added enormously to our workload, and no doubt to yours, requiring us to spend a great deal of time and energy on addressing matters which could have been resolved very easily.
I mentioned `stress and pressure’ a few paragraphs earlier. You can hardly be unaware of the difficulties faced by school principals these days. Difficulties that show in the number of principals on stress leave, the early-retirement rate, the difficulties (in the UK in particular) of finding people willing to take on the job. You can hardly be unaware that every day school principals, including me, have to deal with complex and challenging tasks that often involve intense emotions and which often require huge investments of time and energy. As it is, I start work at 8.30 a.m. and rarely leave the school before 7 p.m. I also spend a good deal of time at home working on school related business. Your letter has greatly added to my stress levels. I regard the tone you take on behalf of the VRQA as an OHS issue. Of all institutions, the VRQA should be aware of the mental health issues affecting school principals and doing its best to make its processes compatible with the best-21st-century-practices… practices which invariably recognise the importance of a positive approach designed to produce the best possible outcomes for all concerned.
It’s a shame that the VRQA does not try harder to identify and acknowledge the many skills demonstrated at Victorian schools as they labour so hard to make a success of the extremely complex and difficult business of providing a stimulating education to the children and teenagers of the 21st century.
Minister for Education