Educational Excellence Everywhere - why aliteration is winning the battle for exclusion

As we prepare for our Is Inclusion Over? event we have been reviewing the importance of language. Leaving aside technical definitions of exclusion as a school process (which is not universally understood) do the words that we use help to create shared understanding of both the issue we are trying to address and its potential solutions?

When we first set up the event grammar schools were just a small part of the inclusion debate. Many of us had seen the likely expansion coming but in policy terms it was the sleeping dragon. Now it has become the symbol of the ‘exclusion’ agenda. Even those who have made significant contributions to the anti-inclusion context are up in arms. Grammar schools have become the shared enemy.

With experience in both charity campaigns and building communities of practice with shared goals the importance of the words that people use to describe their cause is clear to us. There is a growing coalition that wants to oppose exclusive practice, promote inclusion and ensure that Schools That Work for Everyone actually means just that.

But are we – for we include ourselves as part of that coalition – all too earnest? Too clever? And ironically too exclusive in the way we are mobilising the campaign?

Have we fallen into the trap of letting those that are pro-segregation set the language and tone for the debate?

Indeed have we – in our anger and fear of what might come next – not stopped to consider who we are trying to convince and listened to why they might need convincing. That those pro grammars, pro streaming, pro moving children between schools, pro moving ‘difficult’ children to another school are not indeed the enemy. People in public service, MPs, Heads, Governors and civil servants are generally motivated by a sense of moral purpose. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions – nor to say that we shouldn’t call bad practice - but when we create camps and sides there is a significant danger of entrenched and unmoveable positions.

And parents wanting the best thing for their own child are reasonably allowed to fight for the school provision that think best. Alienating the parents who would – for example – send their child to a grammar, or who would want the child who scares their son to be moved to another class, isn’t helpful.

Moreover – while the introduction of the Green Paper has mobilised a community -  treating this as binary – i.e. we win if we see off legislation on grammars; we lose if we don’t, denies the complexity of the inclusion debate. Grammars are an overt form of exclusion but even if the legislation is defeated: a) they are still here and; b) exclusion by other means is spreading across our schools.

We need to find a better way of creating a shared conceptual framework of what an inclusive education is. Then communicate this in a way that makes it the expectation of the population as a whole.

So below our top 5 things to consider in framing the inclusion debate, and what we will be considering as we look at #pushedout and #drawnin as campaign themes.

 

1.       Keep it simple

There is a place for complex description and detailed facts and figures – certainly necessary in the world of policy and research. But while important this is not a fight that will be won speaking in a language that only a few can access. Moreover the ‘semantical jiggerpokery’ can sometimes be more about displaying one’s over cleverness – or - at best-  leading us to a sense of satisfaction when we get the ‘best words’ down on paper while not actually assessing whether the words will change the outcomes.

 

2.       Make it a broad debate

This in part links to point 1. Be wary of a debate that is owned by academics and experts (note this is not the same as Gove’s now infamous expert quote - experts have a part to play). Rather that too many twitter debates, discussions in the pub or debates at the school gates are shut down by ‘experts’.

Caring about language not reinforcing exclusive practice is important but I once saw a passionate parent advocate of inclusion hounded by those who lived and breathed inclusion when she used the words ‘thick kids’. She was trying her hardest to make the point that not all children can have above average IQ and was asking how we should create pathways for children with lower cognitive ability.  She didn’t have the language to frame her statements but her insights – particularly as the parent of a child highly unlikely to make ‘attainment 8’ – were invaluable. However the resulting discussion was on her poor use of language; how damaging the term was. The issue she was trying to address was never returned to, and she never came back to the campaigning group.

 

3.       Open access

Keeping it simple and making it a broad debate underpin this, but here language and routes to engagement really matter. The Sun’s famed reading age of 8 may be a myth (it’s probably slighter higher than this) but there is a reason it is a paper of influence. It uses simple language and bold concepts to engage a wider audience.

If we accept that the debate on education has been owned by middle class graduates then perhaps we should accept, at least in part, that this is because we have not made it easy for the wider community to engage.

The Green Paper – at a rough estimate – has a Gunning Fox - Index of 13/14. This is an index or readability measure - where papers for wide access should be at an index of 12 and papers for universal access should be at an 8.

So perhaps an early win – both on the Green Paper and on wider paperwork on inclusion – is to create an accessible series of briefings.

The second is to find the routes to open access. The Echo Chamber of Twitter and even Facebook fail to reach a wider demographic. Labour’s doorstep campaign was an important part of process but where is the engagement on the non Mumsnet parent community? This is why one of our programmes of work over 2016/17 is #parented – how do we reach and engage parents more widely to help them make informed choices – both about their own schools but also in terms of feeding into wider policy making.

 

4.       Paint a strong and positive picture

Compare Educational Excellence Everywhere with Education Not Segregation; No New Grammars.

The first is positive, powerful and pro something (and the alliteration makes it roll of the tongue). The second has two negative words and is anti something.

Every poll tells us that many parents want grammars. We can explore why - and could almost certainly take these polls apart - but nevertheless a large proportion of the population see grammars as a good thing and – many of those conceptually anti grammars would send their child to one locally.

Equally most parents want their child in a school with no bad behaviour. All their children to be happy. Most of us are most comfortable with people ‘like us’. That’s not evil – that’s human.

So if we are to engage with parents we – the pro-inclusion – lobby need to present an argument for a different way.  Tell the stories of the inclusive schools that are sending children to Russell Group Universities, excelling in children going onto apprenticeships and preparing the entire cohort for adulthood. 

Look at the language in a 600 word sample from Theresa May’s speech. What word did she use the most? Help. Positive. Proactive. Offering something to the reader. What is our offer?

And let’s not underestimate the importance of buzzy titles – compare Schools That Work for Everyone with Schools Where Everyone Can Thrive and Flourish. One sounds positive and firm – the latter sounds – well – a bit right on (although the content is fabulous). So let’s challenge the marketing firms to champion inclusive education. And if we need to use a bit of doublespeak – well maybe we should take a leaf from the Green Paper – Schools that Work for Everyone is an unarguable intent (even if it failed once to mention children with SEND….)

 

5.       Let’s be honest

Taking into account 1-4 above we need to tell it how it is. Telling stories of the insidious nature of underhand exclusion. Outlining the likely social impact of a mass return of grammars. These stories are complex and negative.

But we need to find a way to say these things within the rules we have outlined above.

Sometimes that might just be about the way we call things. We have accepted already a language of the pro grammar schools and anti exclusion/segregation ‘camps’. Well what about a shift – let’s call it as it is - maybe ‘pro segregation’ and ‘ambition for all’.  Maybe every time someone says meritocracy we gently ask the speaker which children they consider ‘undeserving’? When someone says ‘selective schools’ have a part to play in improving standards we ask them why they feel that schools that reject are so important?

Maybe it is about the use of humour.

But maybe – most of all - it is about how we tell stories. The real impact. The government data yesterday said over 30,000 parents want just over 20,000 grammar school places. I’d argue actually many more want grammar schools. Who wouldn’t. If you live in a grammar area they are the symbol of achievement, an illusion of the best of teaching and the perceived pathway to a better life. It doesn’t matter how much of this we know to be false - this is the what they symbolise.

So we have to paint the picture. Of the parent who wants that for their child. Of the parent who works hard and aspires. Of the child who wants to go to school with their friends. Who does their homework every night. Who enters their 11 plus with hope and enthusiasm. Convinced that they can measure up to the standard that is the establishment. For this is what they are being measured against - are you like us? As clever as us?

And the letter through the post that says – you are not like us. You are not deserving. You are not part of the meritocracy. You are 11 and less than. Your parents have failed. You have failed.

We have to paint this picture so that parents understand the risk. And we have to paint the alternative in bright and bold and shiny paints that make it the new irresistible. And maybe we need lots and lots of lovely alliteration.