Language, labelling and lie-abilities

If there were one thing I’d change about primary teaching, it is the widespread use of the shorthand terms “low ability” and “most able” eg “that child is low ability” or “the most able group”. That is not to argue that ability does not vary. There are significant differences between individuals and groups caused by inherited genes and rates of progress that are indicators of ability. Unfortunately ability is not what is generally captured by terms used by OfSTED, the DfE and the profession to label children. 

In the majority of primary classrooms, there is a top table. Their presence is known and acknowledged by every child in the classroom. Any attempt to disguise their existence with neutral terms such as animals (the turtles) or shapes (pentagons) are pointless because these children are accepted, differentiated for and inspected as the “most able”. In planning, assessments and conversations, teachers will save time by referring to children in terms of ability. This defines their peer group, friendships, party invitations etc. (I have not read Dr Tim O’Brien’s book Inner Story yet but I suspect I will learn about how we manage our self awareness). If you are on the top table you are the elite who stand against the rest. Today Professor Coe published a report that private school pupils do significantly better than their state peers. I would argue that some of the difference is down the narrative of elitism that surrounds private education. If you are learning in a system that justifies and sells itself on the idea of an elite standing separate from the rest, it may impact on how you perceive yourself. The same self fulfilling effect occurs in classrooms irrespective of other factors such as wealth which play out in the world. With or without a baseline test, and despite family groupings in early years settings, children at the age of four are sorted out and the language of ability begins to be used especially in relation to early reading despite the lack of evidence that what we see is ability related. If I were to go into the majority of primary classrooms and ask the children with Autumn  birthdays to stand up, the “most able” would all be up out their seats. Of course there would be others in the top groups including August birthdays but it does not detract from the point that we are using shorthand language about ability in order to label and group children inaccurately. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of mobility between ability groupings as children progress through education. Some of the children stay stuck on an ability table for their entire time in primary schools. 

As the curriculum narrows in response to changes to testing, our engagement with the idea of ability changes. In the past, education has considered the ability to store and recall facts alongside the ability to understand meaning and the ability to apply learning practically. In the 1990s the terms Gifted and Talented were introduced to primary schools through non-statutory guidance which introduced a false definition based on the idea that 10% of the national population in any age group were in these categories. Educational reform is aimed at increasing the value of mental recall at the expense of anything else. The child who can read accurately but has little understanding is considered more able than the child who does not yet read as fluently but understands meaning beyond the literal and has a good sense of humour. In that situation, both children know where they stand in the eyes of the education system. One is in the classroom elite and the other is destined to lampoon teachers. This is not to argue against mental rescall which is very important but only when it is balanced by understanding and skills. 

Schools work very hard to value every  child. The idea of coming together as a community to value each member of the community is taken for granted by policy makers which is why some free schools are allowed to open in office blocks where this could not happen.  The end of week assembly where the full range of children’s experience is reflected and celebrated is very important but it needs to be underpinned throughout by language that avoids labels that are focussed on one narrow aspect of education. 

Language is important as it defines and reinforces power. Any group seeking to redress inequality without access to corporate finance will try to influence language (and probably be charged with political correctness) In the classroom the labels given to children define narrowly that human person in a way that is limiting. Any label placed before the word child is also dehumanising (the SEN child; the black child; the EAL child; the naughty child; the pupil premium child; the most able children). Not that teachers are seeking to dehumanise; they are just saving time in a high pressured environment by using shorthand when speaking to each other as professionals.  If we do so we need to acknowledge that when we use labels before the word ‘child’ or ‘children’, we are always in danger of placing limitations on our expectations even if only subconsciously. 

The language of ability is applied to classrooms as a shorthand justification for sitting children on specific tables in order to help teachers differentiate and help inspectors hold schools to account. The term “most able” is in the OfSTED framework and therefore reinforced at every inspection. The wide range of factors that contribute to a child doing well include ability but to use language that denies age, socio-economic class, prior experience etc is unfair on teachers and damaging to children’s progress and aspirations. 

I am blessed to spend a lot of my time in primary classrooms. These environments reflect the astonishing success of state primary education over the last three decades. Those who point to the success are largely ignored as being outside the reform narrative. There is little we can do to the stop the government undoing the success of primary education in order to establish schools as profit making enterprises, but we could, for the benefit of the children in our classes avoid inaccurate and limiting labels when discussing our work. 

Right now I’ve got that out of my system, back to Tim O’Brien’s book. 


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