The Language of Education

Over the past year or so, there has been a subtle (and at times, not so subtle) drift in the language used in education. There have been references to attainment, progress and achievement for some time – and, although measuring these can be fraught with difficulty, this is no bad thing. All teachers, I’m sure, want their students to make progress and to improve.

However, the change recently has been more insidious, more negative in its tone. We have heard of ‘the race to the bottom’, ‘cheating’, ‘dumbing down’. The implication is clear, education is in a mess and the Government need to ride in and take swift ruthless action before it is too late.

The Powers That Be

A brief look at some of the loudest voices illustrates my point. Ofqual‘s press release regarding the problems with the Summer 2012 GCSE results included the following:

Glenys Stacey said: “It is clearly hard for teachers to maintain their own integrity when they believe that there is a widespread loss of integrity elsewhere. No teacher should be forced to choose between their principles on the one hand and their students, school and career on the other.”

A barbed little comment – is it ‘clear’? Are teachers being ‘forced to choose’? Although conciliatory in tone, the underlying implication is that lots of teachers are cheating – but where is the evidence? Which teachers have had to choose to cheat or risk their career? If this is true, then it is a scandal…if. The implication is enough to fuel sensationalist headlines, even without evidence.

Wordle: Ofqual

In his ‘Good to Great’ speech, Michael Wilshaw said:

“we need radical improvements to the education system”

Is this really the case in most schools? Or is it a man, who has a passion for education, overstating the case – a rhetorical device?

If the system was so bad where did all these “brightest and best graduates” come from? That in itself is an unpleasant myth – writing off pretty much everyone already in the profession at the moment – a quick glance at twitter will show that new teachers don’t have the monopoly on innovation, motivation and passion for the job.

Wordle: OfSted

The current Education Minister (current, as we have had 8 different ministers in the past 10 years – this in itself could explain some of the problems in education, as each one wants to make their mark), Michael Gove, in his speech to Brighton College said:

“And because we recognise that Governments must take sides in debates – we must be for aspiration, ambition, hard work and excellence – for success based on merit and a celebration of those who do succeed.”

Truly a comment worthy of Orwell’s Squealer – disagree with us and you want the opposite. The image of the rabid, stike-ready, trade unionist teacher, who cares only for their pension and doing as little work as possible, is lurking in the background. No grey areas, no acknowledgement that we may want the same but disagree with the methods, especially the methods espoused by a man with no teaching experience, a love of the independent sector and little experience of the English state system.

The Truth?

The real situation is probably somewhere between the extremes. Some schools, some individual teachers, some students may well cheat; some may look for the easiest route to tick the boxes on the performance tables. Realistically, most schools will push the boundaries as far as they can, while still staying within the rules.

What is the motivation for this? We have to look at the way schools are judged/ If we don’t want a system where each school focuses on league tables, then we need to remove them – or change the way the tables work. Schools are not created equal, so judgements made on the numbers of top grades will only reveal what we expect to see – selective schools and those with a more affluent intake doing better than those in deprived areas. Teaching alone is not sufficient to change this pattern. Looking at value-added impact gives a more balanced view, but again is fraught with problems – not least who this information is for and how understandable it is.

There are no easy solutions here, but the bottom line is that schools will do their best to meet the standards set for them. It is churlish for ministers to criticize schools for trying to meet standards that they, or their predecessors, have set for them.

Schools

Beyond the Government and the press hounds slavering for a juicy headline, the language used within schools also seems to be taking a disturbing turn. Now, these are my personal bug-bears (right up there with the usual culprits of BS bingo). I can live with the shift from ‘Teaching and Learning’ to ‘Learning and Teaching’ – obviously little learning took place until this semantic change! The BLP ‘learning muscles’ set my teeth on edge, however, the two phrases that I find the most poisonous are ‘customer service’ and any reference to ‘getting them their C grade’.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that poor quality teaching should be accepted, I have issue with the language itself. Both phrases have the suggestion of something being ‘done’ to a ‘customer’ – a customer who doesn’t have to put in any effort themselves – rather like an expensive massage.

The danger is that all language contains messages – and sometimes the message received is not the one intended. Phrases like ‘getting them their C grade’ suggests the student is entitled to the grade, there is no suggestion of work, of effort, of mastery – and, sadly, this is a message that is received loud and clear by some of our young people. They believe the hype and headlines, and their chances are negatively affected (admittedly, largely through their own lack of work). We are failing our ‘customers’ if we let them think this, but that is the message of this type of language, as well as those easy to pass exam equivalents.

So, what is my point? Really, that language is powerful. It is easy to accidentally, flippantly or deliberately create a damaging impression. This was where education in the UK seemed to be at the end of 2012 – hopefully 2013 can be more positive.

3 responses to “The Language of Education

  1. Great post – thanks. A neat idea to gather all these together. For all that I find Gove an abomination he’s an immensely skilled politician – which means we should be even more worried, I suspect.

  2. Hopeful for the future???

    I agree with many of your points, however…

    I’m afraid that schools really do cheat. I was put under such enormous pressure to ‘ensure kids got a C grade on their coursework’ (even by the county’s school improvement partner) by any means necessary, that I had a breakdown and had to have time off work with stress. The choice between going against every fibre of my moral being and securing the jobs of, not just myself, but members of my department was truly mind-scrambling & I still have bad dreams about it nearly 3 years later. I have also learned that since I left that school, the cheating has taken place (I refused to do it) with c/wk grades submitted (to ensure a C grade) and then work being re-written once those kid’s folders were called for moderation to make sure it was ‘up to grade’. New ‘controlled assessment’ has been done with some kids in a classroom with senior teachers telling them what to write and LSAs told to help them ‘put it in their own words’.

    We were made to feel like WE were failing if lazy kids, whose parents had been contacted numerous times, had failed to turn up to coursework club, not responded to intervention by SLT or any other of the strategies put in place, refused to complete work or do it to the best of their ability.

    I really wanted to report the school to the exam board but only had word-of-mouth evidence from a former colleague & could not risk their job being put in jeopardy.

    The school however, was responding to the enormous pressure put on them to rise up in the league tables. It’s just a shame that the SLT chose this as the way of dealing with that pressure & rather than shouldering the pressure themselves they trod on the middle manages below them instead (I wasn’t the only member of staff to feel the pressure – in fact when I called my union rep she told me “we never used to get any calls from your school and you’re about the 15th I’ve had in the last few months. Says it all really).

    And I’m sure my school wasn’t the only one.

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