Are we using out-of-date language in schools?

Should these five common terms be banished from education for good?


Out-of-date language that we should banish from schools

The words we use in schools can sometimes seem peculiar to outsiders.

Sometimes these phrases are born out of necessity or a need for brevity (hence the array of acronyms), and sometimes they’re used because, well, we’ve always used them.

The problem with this is that language changes, or rather, attitudes towards language can change, and expressions that were fine at one point in time can start to sound awkward to a modern ear.

We wouldn't dream of calling a child a "dunce" today, despite the fact that it was once a totally normal expression in the classroom.

Outdated language in schools

So what other phrases should we consign to history? Here are a few contenders:

1. Low-ability or high-ability

Describing a class as "low-ability" or "high-ability" has been steadily falling out of fashion for some time. The problem, says Caroline Spalding, assistant head of The Bemrose School in Derby, is that it suggests their future is predetermined.

“While we can accurately say a pupil has low prior attainment or even is currently low-attaining, to say they are ‘low-ability’ is to predict an unwritten future,” she says. “Such fatalism creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations.” 

So what might be a better term to use? You could replace it with: "previously low-attaining" or "previously high-attaining" to emphasise the distance between the data and the child.

Some people say this helps to separate what has happened in the past, and what they potentially can do in the future. 

2. Detainees

This is a common way to describe children who have been placed in detention, but for some the association with prisons is problematic. It has too strong a prison link.  

Others disagree, however.

"To detain means to keep someone back, which is literally what happens when a child is given an after-school detention – they are prevented from going home,” says Spalding. “I’m unsure why the use of this term raises such ire.

3. Bottom or top set 

If you’re calling your class 9X5, there is every chance they know that they’re in the bottom set. And if they don’t clock it straight away, they will when they see their more academic friends are in 9X1. 

The problems with setting have already been widely debated, but if your school still chooses to stream or sets students, one way to minimise the dent to the self-esteem of your pupils is to do away with obvious set names, and instead use the teacher’s name.

4. School refuser

It is very common to hear people group students who miss a lot of school under the umbrella term "school refuser".  But the term is inaccurate. It is unlikely to be a simple matter of refusing school; that's probably the symptom rather than the cause.

Students may be struggling to attend due to mental health problems, such as social anxiety, agoraphobia or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or it could be due to pressures at home, such as caring responsibilities, or a lack of finances to pay for transport or uniform.

I think it's important that we move away from blaming, shaming language that plants the problem directly at the feet of the child,” says Dr Pooky Knightsmith, a mental health educator and author.

“The label 'school refuser' suggests a child who won’t attend school when, in fact, we are often working with a child who can’t attend school.”

Knightsmith suggests that you could instead use the term "emotionally based school avoidance" or "school-based anxiety".

5. Miss or sir

It is possible that the persistence of "miss" for female staff and "sir" for male staff is a hangover from the time when women left the classroom when they got married due to the marriage bar laws. Some teachers find the inferior-sounding "miss" irritating.

If you did want to replace it, some schools have opted for "mam" or "madam" to try and give the female staff equal standing.

Would you add more to this list? Which words or phrases would you would like to see dropped from the curriculum? Leave your comments below. 

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