Stories + Views
Sometimes, the terms we use or the terms we have foisted upon us – even by the most well meaning writers and commentators – need a little bit of deconstruction.
Take the piece in today’s Education Guardian , part of a long running serial following two sets of pupils over several years in selective Kent.
The pupils are now in their second year at secondary school, and the on-line headline reads:
‘Comprehensive and grammar school pupils talk about year 8.’
And then again, within the stand first, we are told:
‘Two of the children from St Saviour’s were off to a grammar and three to a non-selective high school.’
I suspect most readers of these apparently simple descriptors won’t think twice about them. But they should. They really should. For here, in the ordinary language of the everyday mainstream media, is lodged a gross conceptual inaccuracy; namely, that any school within the same administrative area (in this case, Kent county) as a grammar school can be considered a comprehensive. How can it be, when it has already had its most supposedly ‘able’ – and certainly its most affluent – children creamed off at the age of eleven?
Similarly, to describe a school, which, by definition, contains those who are considered to be less ‘clever’ or capable of high achievement as ‘non -selective’ is also a complete nonsense. Such ‘non-selective’ schools are, of course, the by-product of the most sophisticated selection.
So let’s speak plainly here. Kent – like Buckinghamshire, like Lincolnshire – still operates a system of grammars and secondary moderns. Nowadays the latter have simply been renamed comprehensive or academies or high schools but they remain secondary moderns: the one kind of school universally rejected by parents from the mid sixties onwards when comprehensive education first began to be introduced in this country.
Yet secondary moderns, in effect, remain in place in places like Kent, and the crude and class bound division of children, now obscured by all sorts of pseudo positivist language, has been as surely and swiftly and unjustly achieved as it was in the mid 1940s. So, it’s not that surprising either that Kent’s own director of education recently declared the county to have one of the lowest social mobility rates in the country.
This subtle shift, this use of language itself to obscure the real politics of education, while furthering inequality, is just one of the many reasons that the term ‘comprehensive’ is so fundamentally misunderstood, and misused ( and knowingly so, by the political right) in this country.
At the same time, genuine comprehensives are not called by their proper name either. Mossbourne Academy, in Hackney, is only ever talked of as a victory over comprehensive education by the academy movement: another piece of illogical nonsense. Mossbourne, for all its idiosyncrasies, is proof that we can educate all our children – of whatever class or ethnic background or supposed ability level – under one roof, until late adolescence. (In fact, I think we at the LSN should now officially rename it Mossbourne comprehensive.)
So: next time your eye glides over the use of these supposedly easy and certain terms, stop and think about what is being assumed or asserted. Or indeed, what is not being said…….