The 2013 Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education

I’m just home from this year’s Festival of Education, at which I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak.

The experience was a very positive one, and I met many new people with terrific new ideas about the future of education. It felt strange to be giving a presentation about young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the grand setting of the College’s Old Hall, but the audience response was among the most favourable I’ve ever had.

Some of the other talks were outstanding, as blogged here, here and here. Of the politicians, it was interesting to hear Lord Adonis note that private schools “do well by the taxpayer”, but I wasn’t too convinced by his idea that stay-at-home students should get half-price degrees. Tristram Hunt did his best to outline a Labour alternative to the coalition agenda, and criticised government dismissiveness towards teachers and educational professionals. David Laws pushed for schools to be graded according to their success in closing the disadvantage gap, putting up a strong defence of the pupil premium. And I was pleased to hear Michael Gove acknowledge the role that social capital plays in university admissions processes.

The only session I didn’t enjoy fully was a panel entitled “What do we want our children to know?”. Anastasia de Waal and Mark Thompson were excellent, making a series of observations that were measured, constructive and engaging. But Toby Young was provocative for no good reason (as is his wont), referring to child-centred learning as “balls” despite appearing not to understand what it actually involves.

The fourth panelist, Lindsay Johns, was amusing in his views about “dead white men” in the curriculum (have more of them!) and refreshingly honest about how teachers should relate to pupils (stop listening to them!). I was reminded of his controversial take on Oxford University’s decision to admit only one student of Caribbean origin in 2009.

But then Johns started condemning what he calls “ghetto grammar” (the symptoms of which include “vacuous words such as ‘innit’ and wilful distortions like ‘arks’ for ‘ask’,” according to an earlier piece in the Evening Standard). As a time-served linguist, I felt obliged to raise my hand at the end. The dangers of stigmatizing ‘street slang’ have been compellingly outlined elsewhere, and Lester Holloway has flagged up broader problems with Johns’ position. So all I did was point out that the way a young person speaks is often inextricably tied up with their personal identity. Rather than correct non-standard usage, I suggested, a more productive alternative might be to have pupils reflect on all that’s grammatically and phonetically distinctive about their own dialect. That way they learn about the conventions of Standard English without being made to feel inadequate for speaking a non-standard, though often equally systematic, variety.

This was my only grumble about an otherwise fascinating event. At Wellington College, I learnt much about the key debates within Education, and often found my preconceptions challenged and values tested. The Festival brings together people with all kinds of perspectives and covers a range of important issues. A few more state school teachers need adding to the mix, and a third day of events would make the journey more worthwhile, but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the originality of the thinking and the commitment to the cause.


9 thoughts on “The 2013 Sunday Times Wellington College Festival of Education

  1. Hi Steve. Reading your part on Johns, I have a question. Is it correct that there are those in high finance, journalism and the judiciary system who speak using the ‘ghetto slang’ described here?

    • The reason that some groups are under-represented in the top professions is because of restricted educational opportunities and a lack of relevant social capital. However, my point isn’t that young people shouldn’t code switch when appropriate. My point is that they’ll soon figure this out for themselves if encouraged to reflect on the non-standard features of their own vernacular. To dismiss anyone’s dialect as ‘ghetto grammar’ seems counter-productive and likely to result in further alienation.

      • I assume ‘code switching’ is changing between modes of speech, the way one does, say, when speaking with friends as opposed to when speaking with children.

        Are you, or is someone, saying that it’s possible to switch like this all the way from complete street-slang, peppered with frequent ‘likes’ and ‘innits’, to perfectly urbane speech patterns? I’m just checking because that seems like much more than the usual ‘switch’ that people go through.

  2. I’m not sure to which “perfectly urbane” speech patterns you refer, but the prospect of all English speakers sounding blahly alike in terms of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation is utterly dispiriting to me.

    What I’ve always found is that helping young people to discover how their own dialect works gives them both a firmer grasp of the standard and the confidence to shift towards it when necessary.

    • I don’t have much context to go on here, you and I don’t have a history, or share any common vocabulary; you don’t know what I mean when I say ‘perfectly urbane’ and I don’t know what you mean even when you refer to ‘dialect’.

      In my mind I am picturing kids I teach who can barely articulate a thought. At the other end of the spectrum I’m picturing erudite professionals. While we all ‘switch’ our mode of speech somewhat depending upon our context and audience, I cannot imagine someone switching as far from how these children speak, to how well educated professionals speak. So, if you’re at all able to visualise what I’m picturing – and I accept it’s possible you don’t have experience of working with young people who’s speech and thought patterns are as poor as those I’m working with – I’m asking if you’re suggesting it’s possible to ‘switch’ from that one extreme, to the other?

      • No, nobody is suggesting that it’s possible to switch from one extreme to another.

        The issue is about whether young people who don’t speak standard English are helped more by correction or critical self-reflection.

    • I’m from Yorkshire. Do you know how much easier it is as a 13 or 14 year old to get to grips with Shakespeare when your dialect still retains distinct second person singular pronouns, for instance? This is similarly true for speakers of other languages, who may, for various reasons, be more conscious of certain grammatical phenomena than native English speakers. All of these are there to be utilised in drawing helpful comparison and building self-esteem while addressing legitimate questions of suitability in different contexts.

  3. Thanks for directing me to this, Steven. I’m not an educationalist, so can’t speak directly on the success of different approaches there, but one thing I would add on ghetto grammar is that speakers of these forms of English are judged to a different standard than most everyone else. The regional English accents were once stigmatised in much the same way – speaking with one was seen as evidence you weren’t really cut out for a job in the professions. That attitude is long since gone; no one would suggest we harm our chances by carrying on with a hint of a Yorkshire accent – at least, not to the same extent this claim is made for so-called ghetto English, where the indicator is taken to be of a particular racial and ethnic background, rather than a regional. I think change in perceptions lags behind most likely for that reason.

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