Wednesday, 17 September 2014

What’s in a word?

I expect some eminent lexicographer has researched the frequency of the use of different words in the English language. I heard somewhere that frequently used adjectives are words like ‘different’ or ‘same’. I understand that the word ‘popular’ is very popular. Verbs like ‘can’ and ‘do’ are obviously used frequently. Little words like ‘a’ and ‘the’ probably top the frequency tree.

My own rigorous researches have uncovered what I’m sure will be widely regarded as an important lexicographical breakthrough. Let me share it with you.

The use by Ofsted inspectors of the word ‘robust’ has reached epidemic proportions. I first observed this phenomenon in studying the recent report on Manchester Children’s services and, following strict scientific protocol, sought to replicate my results in the case of the report on Southampton.

My Manchester researches revealed 17 uses of the word ‘robust’ in that report, including four on the same page (page 32). The study of the Southampton report revealed 18 uses of the word.

If you want to repeat my researches you can do so easily. Just open up any Ofsted report on children’s services in Acrobat Reader and use the find function to track down every instance of the word ‘robust’. You’ll pick up some instances of ‘robustly’ and ‘robustness’ as well.

Now it’s a funny thing but I don’t usually hear the word ‘robust’ that often.  My neighbours don’t ask me if I’m feeling robust; and colleagues don’t congratulate me on a robust piece of work. I don’t think I’ve ever heard members of my family or friends use the word.

I suppose I might have used it a few times myself, but I can’t remember when. Perhaps an argument was ‘robust’ or perhaps a used car?

But at Ofsted it seems that its use is de rigueur. Reports on child protection services are positively peppered with it. Management of such services must – above all else - be robust, we are told.

I get a funny mental imagine of these ‘robust managers’. They are people with grim expressions and iron jaws – looking perhaps like General Patton or General Rommel or perhaps Boudica.

Robust managers don’t suffer fools gladly. They take no prisoners. The managed tremble in their presence. They bestride the narrow world of children’s services like Colossuses (as Cassius said to Brutus about Caesar). The corridors of local government echo to the sound of their stamping boots.  They cut swathes through the inadequate practices of lesser mortals and lay waste to untimely work and badly written assessments. And they go about their tasks with all the vigour and dash of a meteorite. After all they are robust.

For those of you who are getting fed-up with me getting sillier and sillier I’ll come to the point. ‘Robust’ is an empty word that points to superficial empty thinking. The problems in places like Manchester or Birmingham don’t stem from managers who are afraid to put the boot in; afraid to take names and kick arse, as they say. And the idea that all we need in order to have high quality and safe services are a few heroes and heroines who aren’t afraid to shake-up practice and put the fear of God into the work force would be laughable if it wasn’t such a cruel deception.

On the contrary, problems of poor quality services and unsafe practices in children’s services stem from a number of causes. They arise from chronic underfunding and poorly designed systems. They come from low morale and over-stretched employees. They come from endless meddling by so-called ‘experts’, by policy wonks and politicians and even by newspaper editors.

And they come from cultures that inhibit improvement and prevent people learning from mistakes. They come from the knee-jerk response of pointing the finger of blame at the usual suspects whenever things go wrong. They come from fear and despair.

For those of you who are interested in my next research foray into the lexicography of Ofsted reports, watch this space for a study of the use of the word ‘embedded’.