‘Grammar schools’ is a linguistically loaded term

As a journalist, I’m always interested in what words we use in different situations, and sometimes the choice of one word (or term) over another determines how something I write will be understood.

This is why I was very interested in the essay by Carys Afoko in The Alternative, the book I’ve co-edited with Caroline Lucas and Lisa Nandy, on the use of language to win a political argument. She writes about how the words one uses to frame an argument are vital to getting people onside.

For example, she discusses the term ‘tax burden’. Why should tax be a burden? Why isn’t it just the price we pay for a service provided by local or national government? But if we talk about the ‘tax burden’ (as the Conservatives do), we turn any reference to tax into increasing that ‘burden’ and thus make people instantly side with the ideology that wants to reduce taxation and thus reduce services.

The same is happening with the emerging debate about secondary education in which the term ‘grammar schools’ is being used as the central tag of the discussion.

I was at secondary school in the 1970s when an ideological debate raged about education, and it always bugged me that people compared grammar schools with comprehensive schools. You don’t compare grammars with comprehensives, you compare grammars and secondary modern schools with comprehensives.

To compare grammars with comprehensives means comparing schools taking the top 10-30% academically brightest kids with schools taking all the kids. Yet even Margaret Thatcher’s education spokesman Norman St John Stevas used to say quite confidently, ‘We have grammar schools and comprehensive schools coexisting side-by-side in my constituency.’ I used to scream at the telly ‘How can you? – if there are grammar schools in the same catchment area as comprehensives, then the comprehensives aren’t comprehensive for heaven's sake!’

The reason the government is pushing ‘grammar schools’ now is that the term is a positive one – such schools produce good academic results. Talking about ‘grammar and secondary modern schools’ would force the debate to recognise that there are losers from the grammar school system. Indeed respected research has shown very clearly that, once you take the losers from selective systems into account, then the comprehensive system does much better.

This is why the fight against Theresa May’s and Justine Greening’s education proposals is as much a linguistic one as a political one. As ‘grammar and secondary modern schools’ is a bit of a mouthful, opponents need to resurrect the term ‘selective education’, or perhaps even ‘divisive education’. If they could get people talking about ‘grammar schools’ as ‘divisive education’, then the debate would be framed in a way that would focus more attention on the losers from the government’s proposals, and thereby make the proposals more attackable.

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Header photograph John Robert Young (c) 2016

Chris Bowers (c)  2019