Abysmal grammar, newspeak and doublethink: it's a brave new world we teach in

28th March 2016 at 10:01
newspeak, doublethink, academisation, academies, schools white paper, parent governors
The government insists that it’s setting teachers, school leaders and governing bodies free to make the decisions. It's all looking decidedly Orwellian, says this leading headteacher

Remember 1984? I don’t mean the year, but George Orwell’s dystopian novel. In his vision of what, back then, was the future (I know: it’s confusing), Orwell coined two fantastic new words: “newspeak” and “doublethink”.

Newspeak was the practice of creating new language to define the prescribed way of doing things under the totalitarian regime predicted by Orwell in his imaginary future. Doublethink was a little harder: that was something that citizens needed to do in order to rationalise the contradictions inherent in government announcements, and to believe in its benign intentions.

Verbification

We can see plenty of examples of both at the moment. Government newspeak has invented the term “academisation”. This new word is remarkable for its grotesquely ungrammatical creation of a noun from a verb from a noun (an American known for massacring the English language once famously proclaimed, “The noun ain’t been invented yet that I can’t verb”).

As any fule kno (as Molesworth used to say), academisation means forcing a school that doesn’t want to be an academy to become one anyway. More than that, nowadays it entails joining a MAT, a multi-academy trust. Where that leaves an existing standalone free school or academy, I’m uncertain.

Parents disempowered

The most recent example of doublethink concerns the position of parents. Obsessed with parent power, Tory thinktanks (surely a contradiction in terms) constantly devise mechanisms to allow disgruntled groups to trigger an inspection, demand an emergency governors’ meeting, sack the head or, even more important, set up a parent-run committee to pick the under-10 football team (OK, I made that one up).

But the White Paper proposes to remove the requirement that academies have parent governors. Supporters of local democracy used to feel that parent governors furnished some protection for academies from outside interference. No longer.

This isn’t the first government to hate local authorities. The coalition did, and the Blair government detested them even more: they got in the way of their vaunted reforms.

At first I wondered whether this was a pragmatic decision not to require the impossible: some schools (or academies) in difficult settings find it hard, even impossible, to recruit parent governors. Besides, every experienced head has suffered that parent governor who uses the position to grind their personal axe rather than looking to the good of the school as a whole.

The normal

My charitable view was dispelled, however, when I saw the wording: “As we move towards a system where every school is an academy, fully skills-based governance will become the normal across the education system.”

More abysmal grammar. Some shocking thinking, too. Skills-based governance? Governing bodies are constantly advised to recruit all the accountants, lawyers and management experts that they can. Why would government pay – or ask schools to use their ever-dwindling budgets – for professional advice, when it can twist arms and get it for nothing?

Have you ever tried to get a lawyer to give you free advice? Even supposing they were willing (if you can imagine it), they would say that they couldn’t, because acting outside their official position would mean they weren’t covered by their professional-indemnity insurance. And someone might sue them. Hell, they might end up having to sue themselves. No, that’s the stuff of fiction – except that real life with this government is growing ever-closer to fiction.

Setting them free-ish

Government doublethink: “We want schools – sorry, academies – to serve their communities and to raise standards, with a ruthless focus on improvement. But we don’t want you parents going soft and messing it up.” This legislation will prevent parents from blocking the change from school to academy.

This government insists that it’s setting teachers, school leaders and governing bodies free to make the decisions. Well, free apart from Ofsted, floor targets, Progress 8 measures and regional commissioners breathing down their necks, and the fact that parents don’t get a say.

Otherwise, business as usual. Come to think of it, Orwell's vision of 1984 was surprisingly accurate, after all.

Dr Bernard Trafford is headteacher of Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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