2019 Autumn Term 1

The know zone

  • The SATs debate
    One senior politician has suggested that SATs should be 'scrapped'. Here Primary Specialist Tiffnie Harris highlights ASCL's position on this important issue. More
  • University challenge
    As the new term begins and students start their UCAS applications, Kevin Gilmartin looks at the university choices of this year's freshers. More
  • Balance the facts and the figures
    Business Leadership Specialist Hayley Dunn shares top tips on setting pay and conditions for school business leadership roles. More
  • Just the job?
    ASCL Pay and Conditions Specialist Louise Hatswell shares advice on how to avoid any pitfalls when changing jobs and moving to another school. More
  • Listen up...
    We asked our members what advice they would give to someone starting in their first leadership role and one word featured in most responses - 'listen'. Here, ASCL members share their thoughts... More
  • Providing an alternative perspective
    Executive Headteacher John Bradshaw is the new voice of ASCL Council elected to represent Alternative Provision (AP) in education. More
  • Mark my words
    Rather than playing with fire, play it safe and change your language to fit your audience. More
Bookmark and Share

Rather than playing with fire, play it safe and change your language to fit your audience.

Mark my words

Have you heard about the cross-eyed teacher? He couldn’t control his students. (bell tolls, trees rustle) Err… his pupils, he couldn’t control his pupils.

Now this joke may have been funnier in the 1970s (blame The Two Ronnies) but it raises the issue of what we call the children in our care, not to mention why.

As usual the Victorians had no doubts. In the 1881 census schoolchildren were called scholars, hence the word ‘school’. Why we stopped using ‘scholars’ I don’t know; it’s age neutral, gender non-specific and sounds quite intellectual.

Pupils, on the other hand, can only be young. The word comes from the Latin pupillus meaning ‘minor’ but unless you really stretch a point about it being linked to eyes and therefore reading, it’s far less impressive than ‘scholar’.

Students are older, wiser and possess greater expertise, although not at my university but we’ll leave that for now. In the USA, all schoolchildren are students, so about 40 years ago, trendy headteachers (never a good thing) borrowed the term from across the pond and threw in ‘principal’ and ‘high school’ for good measure. I think the idea was to make secondary children feel more mature.

Good intentions

I once knew a well-intentioned secondary head (never a good thing), who referred to children in her school as ‘youngsters’. Speeches to parents were littered with references to ‘your youngster’ or ‘the youngsters’ and on one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, ‘my youngster’. But who wants to be a youngster? It lacks the rebelliousness of being a ‘teenager’, the innocence of being a ‘child’ and the formality of being a ‘young person’. Even worse, children in the corridor were greeted with the somewhat fake-cockney charm of ‘Hey, son’ or ‘Well done, son’. Strangely, this never caught on.

Adolescents (now there’s a word that conjures up acne) are the inbetweeners who don’t know what they are, which is why we don’t know what to call them. In recent years this has led well-meaning teachers to be heard addressing their class with the words, ‘Now listen guys.’ I’d have thought this was sexist but apparently not. It’s another American term, originally used in jazz I believe, but it retains a ‘I’m a young person just like you’ feel about it (never a good thing) that might irritate some.

Then there’s its more old-fashioned cousin: folks. Less common now, especially after it was used widely by George W Bush (never a good thing); it is less trendy than ‘guys’ but still tries to sound friendly. Sadly, ‘folks’ comes across as oddly hillbilly, and anyway it dates you terribly.

I find that it’s a bit like addressing your mother-in-law (never a good thing). It really isn’t on to call her by her first name, but ‘mum’ is both inaccurate and feels like a betrayal of your own mother. Potential offence awaits you at any moment so instead you avoid referring to her directly at all or just mumble something about ‘your mother’ to your partner in the hope she’ll respond.

Education books in recent years use ‘kids’ (in a sort of cheery ‘I’m not really writing a boring book’ way) or even ‘the buggers’ (in a ‘I’m pretending to be a grumpy old-fashioned teacher but actually I’m not’ sort of a way). Valiant efforts but once again doomed to fail.

Experience is the best teacher, and it has taught me to play it safe and change your language to fit your audience. Open evening for potential Year 7 parents? Go with ‘ children’ or ‘students’. Ofsted? Stick with ‘pupils’. Giving an assembly or talking to a class? Stay with ‘Year 8’, ‘Key Stage 3’, ‘Blue House’ or similar. That way, unlike the cross-eyed teacher, you probably will be able to control your pupils.

Carl Smith
Principal at Casterton College, Great Casterton, Rutland.

Want the last word?

Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you’d like to share your humorous observations of school life, email Permjit Mann at leader@ascl.org.uk ASCL offers a modest honorarium