Call me obsessed – well, I am a bit – but I was just looking out of curiosity. I was thinking that the way the BBC has recently been getting round the problem of reporting on legislation and government policy that relates to England only (e.g. in education, health, housing, planning, etc.) is to add the words ‘in England’ at the end of the headline. For instance, two days ago, when the BBC News on Radio Four reported the story that one-fifth of English state schools were still failing to meet the government’s minimum targets for GCSE attainment, the fact that the item referred to English schools was indicated by sticking ‘in England’ at the end of the sentence. I thought this was a bit invidious, in that it suggested that the problem of inadequate performance itself was limited to England; as if there was a special failure on the part of English schools or pupils in particular that did not apply to Scottish or Welsh schools, and that this was somehow a reflection on English social failings. If this had been put the other way round, i.e. if the sentence had begun by saying “20% of English schools are failing . . .”, this might have made it clearer that the government has direct responsibility for English educational matters – in fact, that its competence in education relates only to England; and that if anyone should carry the can, it’s the government.
To be fair to the BBC (or, as I like to call it in such matters, BBC England), their report on the story on their website does start with the words, “Almost a fifth of England’s state secondary schools do not yet meet the government’s new ‘floor target'”; although that is the first and last time the report mentions the fact that the newly released figures concern English education only. In addition, I myself did post a blog a couple of months ago urging the BBC and the media in general to make more of an effort to indicate when political stories were relevant to England alone by, for instance, adding the phrase ‘in England’ somewhere in the sentence.
So, I thought to myself today, hat tip to the BBC for at least spelling out when stories are unique to England a bit more. I wondered whether they’d taken a lead from the press release on the (English) Department for Children, Schools and Families website. I thought the department must surely state fairly prominently that the new statistics related to England only: what’s the point of a set of statistics if you don’t know to which unit of population or organisations they relate?
But oh no, the facts were even worse than I expected, or should that be ‘suspected’? Have a look yourself: the only reference to England in the entire press release was in a footnote carrying the obscure words, “This press notice relates to ‘England'”. I kid you not, the apostrophes around ‘England’ are there in black and white for all to read. What is ‘England’, we might feel entitled to ask? If they actually mean England – a real country, geographical territory and statistical population group – why put it in apostrophes, as if it was something unreal or unofficial? If you weren’t alerted to the facts, you could actually completely fail to grasp the whole import of this sentence, which is that all the information and statistics you have just been reading concern English schools only, not those of the UK as a whole. Up until that point – and apart from the obscure meaning of this footnote, you might not see it at all if you don’t get to the end of the press release – there’s been nothing to indicate that the figures weren’t those for the UK, or at least for England and Wales (which they’re not: the Welsh Assembly Government looks after Welsh education matters).
The reason why I say you have to be alerted to the facts is that you need the contextual knowledge that educational issues have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be aware not only that individual press releases deal with English matters only but that the whole Department for Children, Schools and Families is an English government body, not one with UK-wide responsibilities. The Department itself certainly isn’t going to tell you. I think of myself as being reasonably well informed in these matters. But even I was slightly foxed by the ‘Cymraeg’ link in the bottom frame of the web pages, which takes you to information on the Welsh Language Scheme. I thought, does the Department have any responsibilities for education in Wales after all? Well, maybe it does have some residual, strategic involvement or at least a point of view. But that’s it. Look at the Department’s page about their regional office structure: nine English regions there (hmm, don’t get me on to that one!) but nothing in Wales. But nothing in the ‘About us‘ page about England, either. At least, they don’t go on about Britain or the UK there!
For me, the phrase “This press notice relates to ‘England'” is symptomatic of the denial of any official, formal status to England as a nation; and moreover, as the nation whose education services and standards represent the entire domain of responsibility of the Department itself. What other implication could there be in putting ‘England’ in inverted commas? This says, ‘the area informally known as England but which is not an official term’. It’s the only way they can refer to the territory and population to which all their statistics (indeed, their work as a whole) relate without making themselves look ridiculous. Otherwise, they’d have to say something like, “This press notice relates to the regions of the UK administered by the central UK government”, or “This notice does not relate to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland”.
Well, if the DCSF (or whatever acronym they eventually adopt) think it’s OK to add ‘England’ as an unofficial footnote, then I feel entitled in adding ‘England’ unofficially to the name of the department itself, which shall henceforth be known as the ‘English’ Department for Children, Schools and Families. After all, as they say themselves, it is a UK department that relates – despite itself – to ‘England’ only.