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LASTWEEK'S foray into the regions dealt with one aspect of language, but what about the everyday usage that teachers hear in the classroom? And does that have any bearing on learning and achievement?

Bernstein thought so. In the 1970s, Basil Bernstein was professor of sociology at London's Institute of Education. He developed a theory of language codes, arguing that middle-class parents had jobs that relied on the use of language. At home, behaviour was negotiated and rules explained. "Please don't climb up the aspidistra," says mummy, "I've an awful headache and I must get this novel finished." The result was an elaborate code whereby children learnt to describe events in context and to qualify statements.

In working-class homes, children were less exposed to complex language forms. At work, parents were less likely to rely on language skills: at home communication would be more direct and utilitarian. Discipline was based on simpler forms of authority - "Do that again an' I'll clout yer."

This, argued Bernstein, produced a restricted code. He tested this theory by showing a series of pictures to children. Middle-class kids described boys playing football in the street. One kicks a ball through the window of one of the houses. The owner appears and berates the culprits. Working-class children were more likely to say: "They've broken that man's window."

But schools, Bernstein pointed out, rely on an elaborate code, particularly for assessment. The result further disadvantages children who are already penalised by poverty.

To describe this theory as controversial would be an understatement. Bernstein was lambasted for stereotyping families and misrepresenting the richness of working-class culture. It didn't help when two Americans used a version of his theory to imply that black inner-city children needed remedial help with English because their street argot was inadequate.

Twenty years later, class divisions have blurred. But if parents rely on the telly as a babysitter and a slap as an explanation, their children won't arrive in school with a rich and ready vocabulary. And homes in which both parents are too busy earning money to spend time with their children are equally unlikely to produce the next Wilde, Austen or Shaw.

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