Category Archives: Politics

I’ll Get My Coat: Educational Excellence Every Which Way But Loose

He wanted to say, oh, how he wanted to say: craftsmen.

D’you know what that means? It means men with some pride, who get fed up and leave when they’re told to do skimpy work in a rush, no matter what you pay them . . .

But you don’t care, because if they don’t polish a chair with their arse all day you think a man who’s done a seven-year apprenticeship is the same as some twerp who can’t be trusted to hold a hammer by the right end.

He didn’t say this aloud, because although an elderly man probably has a lot less future than a man of twenty, he’s far more careful of it …

— Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

“I have a dream . . .”

To me, the recent Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper reads like a managerialist’s dream. It has all the hallmarks of a document written by the kind of person for whom spending a whole morning composing a stiffly worded email equates to “kicking some serious arse”.

Consider this “illustrative example” of what things may be like when, at long last, the unwieldy behemoths known as MATs rule the Earth:

Evans Education Endeavours (EEE) is a strong MAT of six schools. EEE is performing well in published MAT measures … EEE is overseen by a small, skilled board which sets the overall strategy … A strong headteacher from one of the schools has stepped up to the role of Executive Head.

Another MAT, Shining Academies (SA), is struggling. It has nine schools, seven within the same county as EEE and two in another part of the country. SA is performing poorly in published MAT measures . . .The RSC [Regional Schools Commissioner] suggests to EEE that they should take on seven SA schools . . . and suggests that the Executive Head becomes the CEO . . . EEE’s central board is strengthened by a new non-executive director recruited via Academy Ambassadors. Parents’ views are sought throughout this process. The board restructures governance and leadership by establishing two ‘raising achievement’ boards, each holding an executive principal toaccount for a cluster of 6-7 schools, leaving school level bodies to focus on listening to and engaging parents. EEE uses its expertise to improve the newly joined 7 schools, improving outcomes for thousands of children.

(p.61)

Now truth be told, I’ve no great love (or hate, either) for local education authorities: in my experience they are just bureaucracies which can be either supremely helpful or wilfully obstructive depending, in large part, on the individuals that one happens to come into contact with.

The white paper seems to have the idea that by placing the bureaucrats in geographically-scattered offices with different wallpaper one can achieve so much more. I suppose that such ardent faith in the transformative power of bureaucratic structures is either endearing or terrifying, depending on one’s point of view. My own life experience, and a childhood reading of the works of C. Northcote Parkinson, lead me to believe differently.

 

“Godwin’s LAW? Actually it’s more a sort of guideline…”

But what of the rest of the white paper? For the life of me, and Godwin’s Law notwithstanding, the historical parallel that springs to my mind is that of Hitler and Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner. In 1945, Hitler was sealed in his bunker, vainly ordering phantom divisions that existed only on paper to attack and halt the rapidly approaching Red Army. He fully expected to execute a bold strategic master stroke that would result in total victory. “Wo ist Steiner? Where is Steiner?” Hitler kept demanding, wanting Steiner’s forces to be part of a pincer movement that would crush the Soviets.

Little did he know — or care — that the divisions that looked so mighty on paper were, in reality, outnumbered 10-to-1 by the Russians and were composed mainly of platoons of exhausted walking wounded without combat weapons. At times, they were even grouped by their wounds for administrative convenience, so there would be whole battalions of men with stomach wounds, and brigades of men who’d had their right arms amputated, for example.

Steiner refused to attack.

Wo ist Steiner

“Wo ist Steiner?”

I believe we are currently in Nicky Morgan’s “Wo ist Steiner?” moment. She apparently believes that a simple act of administrative  legerdemain can conjure up legions of “talented teachers” ready to be thrown into the fray. After all, how can they not when, luckily, their performance can be scrutinised by “raising achievement panels”. Leadership is all, apparently. If we can get a few “can-do” CEOs and RSCs in there then everything will shape up nicely.

In reality, what she’s got is a tired, fed-up and rapidly diminishing core of veteran teachers. Our leaders seem to think that a lick of paint and a new general or two with the right attitude will sort everything out.

Sadly, I don’t think it will.

Now, like an apprentice staring at the work of a master, he read Reacher Gilt’s words on the still-damp newspaper.

It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although ‘synergistically’ had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk’s problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance and wilful stupidity.

Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes – oops, ‘well-intentioned judgements which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error’ – but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting ‘fundamental systemic errors’ committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and ‘were to be regretted’.

Terry Pratchett, Going Postal

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Teachers At The End Of Their Tether

His renascent intelligence finds now that we are confronted with strange convincing realities so overwhelming that, were he indeed one of those logical consistent creatures we incline to claim we are, he would think day and night in a passion of concentration, dismay and mental struggle upon the ultimate disaster that confronts our species . . . It will perish amidst its evasions and fatuities. It is like a convoy lost in darkness on an unknown rocky coast, with quarrelling pirates in the chartroom and savages clambering up the sides of the ship to do evil as the whim may take them.

— H. G. Wells, Mind At The End of Its Tether (1945), pp. 12, 15

Although I first read the book a long time ago, the profoundly depressing atmosphere of H. G. Wells’ last book has haunted me over the years. In this book, he brooded on what he saw as the imminent extinction of humankind. At times, the prose seemed less than coherent; but at others, it seemed lucid and recognisably Wellsian. The title says it all — it is what it is: the ruminations and lucubrations of a Mind At The End Of Its Tether.

In my estimation, there has been something in the air of the edu-blogosphere over the last few days that recalls the dark atmosphere of Wells’ book. What I think we’re seeing is a number of teachers at the end of their tether.

For example, Teaching Personally writes:

The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things,  notably the issue of marking . . . We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking . . . I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important. But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. [Emphasis added.]

From a different perspective, Heymissmith writes:

The ideals I held when I went into teaching twenty years ago were centred around one idea: that education was liberation . . . Charter chains such as Doug Lemov’s Uncommon Schools network exert incredible amounts of control over their teachers, curriculum and students in the pursuit of narrowly defined ‘success’ . . . It feels as if a nuclear winter is descending. [Emphasis added.]

Martin Robinson also writes:

Different children every year are expected to perform better than children did the year before. This means that although every year the children change, the school is expected to improve, the children are not the reason for this improvement, the school is. This is not teacher centred or child centred education, it is school centred, and with statistical modelling it will be school eat school out there . . .

As grades are currency in the real world it is always good to hear of children doing well, getting on a course, getting an interview, getting a job that they wouldn’t have got were it not for that ‘B’…

But…

If the child is but a cog in an exam machine we can but wonder if the child that got on the course clutching their B to their bosom is the same child that the new course teacher expects them to be. The more a school or teacher does for a pupil in order to get them through the exam there has to come a point where the exam is not really down to the pupil at all. This means that the exam currency for the pupil is destabilised. [Emphases added.]

The edu-bloggers quoted are amongst the writers to whom I routinely turn when I need my pedagogic compass reset, my enthusiasm reignited or when I need my often unthinking acceptance of dogma or fashionable nonsense challenged (which is way more often than I’d care to admit).

Perhaps it is just the winter of our discontent, but to me there seems to be a larger number (than usual!) of edu-bloggers expressing disquiet at a pervasive, creeping rottenness at the heart of UK education. And, disparate and heterogeneous group though they are, I believe that edu-bloggers have their collective finger on the pulse of education.

The canaries in the coal mine are speaking.

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Safe Space

[Being a satire partly inspired by university campus “safe space” policies and this.]

The Roman Inquisition recently posted this message on their Facebook page:

The Roman Inquisition Society stands in solidarity with the Geocentric Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Astronomy Society in extending an invitation to Professor Galileo Galilei to speak on campus, and agree that hosting known geocentrophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.

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Galileo Facing The Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti

A spokesman for the Roman Inquisition Society told us that the publication of Galileo Galilei’s new book Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems showed that Professor Galilei, was “nothing but a reactionary Heliocentrist of the worst stripe”.

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Frontispiece of Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems

The spokesman went on to say that an event where Professor Galilei would be able to speak “uninterrupted and unopposed, possibly for several whole minutes, on the supposed ‘reality’ of the Earth’s motion around the Sun” would be in direct contravention of stated Student Union policy which does not grant a platform for speech which could be interpreted as being “disruptive to social and community harmony”.

He closed by saying that: “Whilst we in the geocentrist community have always welcomed debate and challenge, it must be within the context of a positive conceptual framework, such as that put forward by that nice Professor Harry Stottle. After all, freedom of speech is all well and good, but don’t we geocentrists deserve our safe space too?”

Members of the Astronomy Society said that they had invited both the Roman Inquisition Society and the Geocentric Society to observe the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, but representatives of both societies had declined by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La-la-la! Not listening! La-la-la!”

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Academisation, Academisation, Academisation

Bogstannard Comprehensive School

Bogstannard Comprehensive School: “Not everybody fails”

MAN IN GLASSES (for it is he): Good evening, viewers. Tonight, we are going to examine the impact of the government’s controversial new education policies ‘on the ground’, so to speak, at one of the first schools in the country to undergo forced academisation in the latest tranche of institutions deemed to be ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ by Government ministers.

WHILE M.I.G. SPEAKS, BACKGROUND SHOTS OF A TYPICAL COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL BUILT IN THE 1970s APPEAR ON THE SCREEN.

WOMAN: Well, of course, the first we knew about the forced academisation was when the new management team from the SKARO Academy Chain arrived in their shiny new suits.

The new senior leadership team from the SKARO Academy chain arrive…

M.I.G.: And would you say that they’ve succeeded in driving up standards?

WOMAN: A little. The kids are a lot less scruffy since the Headteacher started exterminating anyone who had their top button undone. Or who didn’t know their target grades. Or didn’t make the expected level of progress. Or looked at SLT a bit funny. Mind you, they treated the staff in exactly the same way.

M.I.G: What? You mean that they held staff to the same exceptionally high standards as the children?

WOMAN: No, they exterminated them. Some of the older staff just couldn’t adjust to pushed around on castors with a sink plunger and an egg-whisk under their armpits whilst shouting “YOU WILL MAKE PROGRESS! OR! YOU! WILL! BE! EXTERMINATED!” in a loud, grating voice. But that’s part of the academy chain’s “corporate style” and one of the “non-negotiables”, as the Headteacher likes to call them. But the younger staff seem to be adapting well to new regime, especially those who entered on the SKARO Direct and EXTERMINATE First! routes. Actually, some of them seem to enjoy it . . .

THE CAMERA ZOOMS IN ON A SMALL Y7 CHILD STANDING ALONE IN THE PLAYGROUND. HE IS STANDING STIFFLY TO ATTENTION. EVERY FEW SECONDS, HE REFLEXIVELY AND REPETITIVELY CHECKS WHETHER HIS TOP BUTTON IS DONE UP. HIS EYES SWIVEL NERVOUSLY FROM SIDE TO SIDE. TUMBLEWEED BLOWS AROUND HIS FEET.

M.I.G.: Have the new leadership team exterminated many of the students?

WOMAN: A fair few. But as Mr Davros, the CEO of SKARO Academy, said in the newsletter, that we shouldn’t think of it as a form of ruthless mass murder, but rather as a “proactive measure to help ease the national pressure on school places”.

M.I.G.:  I understand there was some unpleasantness involving a surprise Ofsted inspection?

WOMAN: Not really. I mean, the lead inspector was a bit suspicious when he found that the majority of the SLT were descended from an extraterrestrial race of humanoids know as the ‘Kaleds’. He said that sounded, well, a bit ‘un-British’ if you catch my drift.

M.I.G.: And what the leadership team do?

WOMAN: Well, two little doors opened up in the dome on top of Mr Davros’ head and two little union jack flags popped out and he started chanting “BRITSH VALUES! BRITSH VALUES! YOU MUST HAVE BRITISH VALUES!” before leading everyone in a rousing rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

British values

British values! British values! You must have British values!

M.I.G.: And what happened then?

WOMAN: Oh, they exterminated the Ofsted Lead Inspector.

M.I.G.: Really?

WOMAN: Yeah. He undid his top button while they were singing.

M.I.G.: And how did the staff react to this?

WOMAN:To the Lead Inspector being reduced to a small pile of smoking ashes by an extraterrestrial death ray? Stunned, I think. Followed by some quiet smiles and handshakes and someone saying “I didn’t know we could do that…” Mind you, some of the inspection team didn’t look too displeased either…

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“Squaring The Circle” Or Lukewarm Water? The Disappointed Idealist vs. Horatio Speaks Affair

[They] are like poets, you know, like Shelley or Byron, or people like that. The two totally distinct types of visionaries, it’s like fire and ice, and I feel my role in the band is to be kind of the middle of that, kind of like lukewarm water.

— “Derek Albion Smalls” from This Is Spinal Tap

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"Derek Albion Smalls" as played by Harry Shearer


Chemistrypoet invites someone to “square the circle” between two powerfully written — but diametrically opposed — posts from Disappointed Idealist and Horatio Speaks.

Disappointed Idealist writes that he loathes what he sees as the current government’s obsession with drawing a line in the sand and declaring those on one side winners and the other as losers. He writes movingly of the experiences of his three daughters:

They just called my daughters “mediocre failures” . . . Like most clever people who don’t have difficulty with language or maths or spatial awareness, or other academic activities, I fundamentally find it impossible to truly understand why they can’t, despite endless practice, remember how to spell basic words, or how to do basic sums. The school have tried all sorts of different methods of teaching it, and so have we at home, but one day it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Some things stick for a while, some things don’t stick at all . . . At home, they are delightful, loving, awkward, stroppy, generous, always hungry, funny and, above all, happy. But they won’t “pass” their Y6 SATs.

I am sure most teachers are familiar with that “one day it’s there, the next it’s not” sensation when teaching SEN students (I wrote a post about it a while back). In my experience, patience and kindness and persistence are the order of the day in this scenario (not that anybody says it’s not.) My experience also tells me that sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Horatio Speaks makes the case that recent scientific research shows that all children can be taught to read, write and do mathematics effectively, bar a very few severely disabled individuals.

To which I say: good! Like most teachers, show me a better way to teach and I am all over it. Horatio Speaks goes on to say:

I applaud the passion of the Disappointed Idealist . . . But I would be happier if he – and the thousands who cheered him on – were directing their anger at the education establishment’s assumption that we will always have children who fail. It’s a false assumption, as is the emotional caricature that those advocating for more accountability for children’s progress care less about the children. I have worked with SEN long enough to know that the most deadly poison is sympathy. It kills by paralysis.

Over the years and from time to time, sadly, I have seen some bad SEN: “death by word search”, for example. And Horatio Speaks is right, bad SEN can kill by paralysis; or, more probably, boredom. But, obviously, not all SEN is bad SEN.

The nub of the disagreement between Horatio Speaks and Disappointed Idealist, I believe, lies in the use of the phrase “children who fail”.

Horatio Speaks rails against an educational establishment that assumes that we will “always have children who fail”. In my view, he is referring to the fact that some children leave school without basic literacy and maths skills.

Disappointed Idealist rails against a system that wants to label children as “mediocre failures”. In my view, he is lamenting the fact that, according to a politically imposed and essentially arbitrary standard, some children will be labeled as “failures” through no fault of their own and that this is, frankly, unhelpful.

My own view is that both of them have valid points. While it is undeniable that some children will do less well than others, by whatever measure is taken, the question is: what should the education system do with this information?

I suspect that both Disappointed Idealist and Horatio Speaks would argue for a diagnostic rather than a judgemental approach as far as each individual student is concerned.

Circle squared? Maybe, maybe not. This is Derek Albion Smalls, signing off.

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Playing the Game

Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry.

— J. R. R. Tolkein, The Two Towers

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If there’s anything that makes me lose the will to live, it is being in the same room as an educational Player of Games. I’m sure everyone is reasonably familiar with the type: “I want every intervention from now until the end of term focused on improving the A*-C pass rate for left-handed Y11 students whose birthday month has an R in it.”

Yes, it might help, marginally, in some sense. On such massaging of the margins are modern educational careers and reputations built.

Personally, such considerations leave me cold. Such teachers, it seems to me, hold their statistics in higher esteem than their students. The percentage is adjudged to be the outcome, rather than merely an indicator of a number of successful outcomes.

Sometimes, when I try and express this, people look at me as if I had twelve heads. It is a nuanced and subtle difference of emphasis, admittedly, but I think it’s a valid one. As an analogy, imagine a doctor who focuses on (say) a patient’s temperature to the exclusion of all else: “Doctor, I think I’ve broken my leg.”

“H’mm, let’s have a look. Actually, your temperature is a wee bit high. Here, let me apply this cold compress to your forehead.”

“But what about my leg?”

“Well, your body temperature is back to normal now. That means that we now have the officially mandated number of ‘healthy’ patients as per Ofdoc guidelines.”

“But what about my bloody BROKEN LEG?”

“My work here is done. Next patient please!”

The other note of caution that needs to be sounded more loudly in the education world is awareness of what is known as the Halo Effect.

I learned about this in Duncan Watts’ excellent book Everything Is Obvious (When You Know The Right Answer) in which he summaries the work of Phil Rosenzweig:

Firms that are successful are consistently rated as having visionary strategies. strong leadership, and sound execution, while firms that are performing badly are described as suffering from misguided strategy, poor leadership or shoddy execution. But, as Rosenzweig shows, firms that exhibit large swings in performance over time attract equally divergent ratings, even when they have pursued exactly the same strategy, executed in the same way, under the same leadership all along. Remember that Cisco Systems went from being the poster child of the Internet era to a cautionary tale in a matter of a few years . . . Rosenzweig’s conclusion is that in all these cases, the way firms are rated has more to do with whether they are perceived as succeeding than what they are actually doing.

— Watts, p.197 [emphasis added]

In one early experiment, several teams were asked to analyse the finances of a fictitious firm. Each team was rated on their performance and then asked to evaluate their team in terms of teamwork, communication and motivation. The high scoring teams assessed themselves very highly on these metrics compared with the low scoring teams, as you might expect. However, the kick was that performance scores had been allocated at random — there was no real difference between the teams’ performance at all. The conclusion is that the appearance of superior outcomes produced an illusion of superior functionality.

Watts argues persuasively that we tend to massively underestimate the role of plain, dumb luck in achieving success. He cites the case of Bill Miller, the legendary mutual fund manager who did something no other mutual fund manager has ever achieved: he beat the S&P 500 for fifteen straight years. Watts notes that this seems a classic case of talent trumping luck. However:

. . . right after his record streak ended, Miller’s performance was bad enough to reverse a large chunk of his previous gains, dragging his ten-year average below that of the S&P. So was he a brilliant investor who simply had some bad luck, or was he instead the opposite: a relatively ordinary investor whose ultimately flawed strategy just happened to work for a long time? The problem is that judging from his investing record alone, it’s probably not possible to say. [p.201]

I trust that I do not have to draw too many lines to highlight the relevance of these points to the education world. Outcomes, in the sense of exam grades, are currently the be-all and the end-all of education. But the Halo Effect makes it clear that a simplistic reading of successful outcomes can be highly misleading.

Negating the Halo Effect is difficult, because if one cannot rely on the outcome to evaluate a process then it is no longer clear what to use. The problem, in fact, is not that there is anything wrong with evaluating processes in terms of outcomes — just that it is unreliable to evaluate them in terms of any single outcome. [p.198]

Ofsted. managers and politicians please take note: our search for a signal continues.

Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

— Sir John Betjeman, The Arrest of Oscar Wilde At The Cadogan Hotel

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Education And The English Language

Or: Tristram Hunt: Must Try Harder

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“When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
— George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

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“Ladies and Gentleman, my argument today is very simple: we must transform. And we must trust. Because a powerful convergence of social, economic and technological forces are creating huge challenges for our future prosperity that education can no longer ignore. We find ourselves at a unique and incredibly fragile moment in our economic history. With technology and globalisation combining to ferment a ‘third’ industrial revolution. Creating a digitally enhanced brave new world filled both with enormous challenges and opportunities.”
— Tristram Hunt, Speech to ASCL Conference 20/3/15

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“This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”
— Orwell 1946
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“[This] means education must also serve as a strategy for national economic renewal; that our country’s future prosperity depends on unlocking our education system’s hidden potential. It is that force which I would suggest drives our system’s ‘high stakes’ nature. And it is not an inconsiderable concern.”
— Hunt 2015
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“Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation . . .  [and], like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”
— Orwell 1946
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“[Y]ou have the democratic promise of Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s “this is for everyone” vision. Where enterprise, creativity and idea becomes the true currency of opportunity. As opposed to class, identity, power, wealth or status . . . For this truly is the wonderful thing about the digital revolution. It democratises power. It stimulates innovation. Weakens bureaucratic control. And provides new platform for articulating an alternative.”
— Hunt 2015
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“The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details . . . Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin where it belongs.”
— Orwell 1946

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