Why Language Matters

As an English teacher for over twenty years it is hardly surprising that I think language use really matters. During that time I have taught not only a variety of English Language syllabus’ but also Media and Film, both of which focus closely on what it is our language signifies and who may or may not benefit from this. Similarly, the study of History reminds us to examine the language used by those wishing to capture the important moments in their lives and worlds, providing the key to understanding what they stood for, what they experienced and what they may have been hoping to promote.

The language that currently exists around schools is a textbook case of this in action. Orwell, everyone’s go to when we want to think about the power of language said, ‘Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ We have certainly had many examples of ‘pure wind’ trying to sound legitimate in the last few months and the constant refrain of ‘schools are safe’ without sharing any reliable data to confirm spread or statistics on infection rates in the teaching profession, the emptiness of this statement is all too clear to those who refuse to accept the breeze being blown at them.

Now we are onto the stage where schools are apparently closed. This will once again bring out those commentators from last time, you know, the ones who apparently know all about pedagogy and best approaches before even the EEF has time to say, ‘rapid review of evidence’. They are eagerly waiting to tell teachers what they are doing with their day and how they are getting it wrong.

Frustrating as it is, it is important that those who have the energy to push back on this to do so. We need to keep reminding everyone that schools and education is very much open. Some schools have over 50% attendance. Special schools and nurseries are continuing pretty much business as usual, with barely a reference to the need for PPE or other adaptations. Teachers in all sectors are continuing to try to provide learning in a variety of ways which suit their contexts and many working hours over this last week appear to be going through the roof.

That is why it was especially abhorrent to hear the language of the Education Secretary when making his announcement in the Commons, with words like ‘legally binding’, ‘mandatory’ and ‘enforced’ being some of the first off his lips. Whilst there is a legal requirement for the DfE to ensure education can continue in some form, referencing this in his opening few paragraphs and focusing on what schools must provide as opposed to what the Government aims to ensure, completely undermined any thanks which had preceded this. To furthermore go on to suggest parents who were unhappy complained directly to Ofsted, could not have made it any clearer that actually he thinks schools are likely to be in dereliction of duty. Before they even began. By selecting those words immediately, he reinforced the idea we can’t trust schools, they will try to avoid doing the right thing and we need to force them to do what is needed. Shameful is the only way I can describe this.

Simultaneously we have guidance which on the one hand tells people to stay home, but on the other encourages parents where one of them is a keyworker to send students to school. This, coupled with the extension of the keyworker list (or ‘critical worker’ as now seems to be the preferred parlance and loaded with a whole new set of implications), alongside a lack of additional support for those who could be better off staying at home, has meant schools have been inundated with requests for places for childcare. Then they threw in the addition of those who didn’t have a laptop or appropriate work space (could be me then as most of my work is taking place on the sofa), to create a perfect storm where even more schools were ‘clopen’, requiring greater numbers of staff in school to supervise pupils. We can already today add the idea that exams are ‘nancelled’ to the list.

Once they realised the extent of the problem they created (if only there was a way they could have anticipated this?), they then began to try to reel things in, saying you ‘should’ keep children at home if at all possible, making yet another language choice which ‘could’ be interpreted in numerous ways. Should in that sentence is highly subjective and unhelpful to those trying to make the best decisions for those at home and those in schools.

We know politicians have been playing with language for centuries. They are aware of the power of their words and in recent days the events in America have been a stark reminder to all exactly how powerful, and deadly, they can be. But let’s keep calling them on it. Journalists and parents and teachers and in fact, anyone who votes or will one day be able to, need to demand clarity and precision in the messages used and continue to challenge that which is being used to serve insidious purposes as opposed to improving lives.

Zoe Enser is the lead specialist English advisor for Kent schools with The Education People. Her first book, Generative Learning in Action is available now.

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