Inclusion supporters need a winning way with words

Choose the words you use in the battle against selection with care, says Anita Kerwin-Nye, as they can frame the entire debate.

Lots of clever people are writing on inclusion.

Julian Astle of the RSA recently published a beautifully argued anti-grammars piece called The RSA Enters the Grammar School Debate. The argument is clear and has lots of lovely data. But take Peter Hitchens on the same subject, writing for Civitas in The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools. Just as clear. Just as clever. Both positions well described and ready to be torn down by their opponents.

This policy ping-pong dominates Twitter and education conferences.

But are those of us who stand for inclusion and against segregation winning the debate? Are we even debating with the right people? And while we are debating amongst ourselves, what is Theresa May offering the public?


Take some random 600-word segments of May’s education speech and word-cloud them. “Help” is the word she says the most. Hope and support dominate.

The pro-grammar movement is winning with words. Educational Excellence Everywhere is so much stronger as a white paper title than Schools that Enable All to Thrive and Flourish, the Headteachers’ Roundtable alternative (despite the latter’s better ideas).

The Schools that Work for Everyone green paper sounds so much more positive than Labour’s battle cry: Segregation Segregation Segregation. Don’t get me wrong – the latter certainly resonates, but we don’t need to convince the converted.

So how do we need to speak?

First, we need to stop suggesting this is binary. 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. There is a political battle to win in parliament, but the battle for hearts and minds is what will stop exclusive practices on the ground.

And winning hearts and minds means adopting campaign tactics. So:

1.    Keep it simple
There is a place for complex description and detailed figures – certainly necessary in the world of policy and research. But this is not a fight that will be won speaking in a language that only a few can access.

2.    Make it a broad debate
Be wary of a debate that is owned by the academic and the expert. Note this is not the same as Gove’s (now infamous) quote that people have “had enough of experts”; rather that too many Twitter debates, discussions in the pub or debates at the school gates are shut down by “experts”. How do we reach the non “expert”? How do we listen to and understand those that don’t share our views?

3.    Open access
The Sun’s famed reading age of 8 may be a myth (it’s probably slighter higher) but there is a reason it is a paper of influence. It uses simple language and bold concepts to engage a wider audience.

The government’s latest green paper – at a rough estimate – has a Gunning Fox-Index of 13-14. This is a readability measure – papers for wide access should be at an index of 12, papers for universal access at 8. So perhaps an early win would be to create accessible briefings to support non “expert” consultants.

4.    Paint a strong positive picture
Polls tell us that many parents want grammars, that they value academic success.

So let’s talk about academically excellent schools. Let’s talk about Achievement High. A school where students go on to study at Russell group universities. And where there is no entrance exam. Anyone can go there. All the benefits Theresa May is offering, but no risk your child will be
left at the gates. Achievement High has three times the average number of children with EHCP, 87 per cent of children receive pupil premium and they smash the progress that government expected of them. Aspiration and inclusion. Who wouldn’t want to go there?

5.    Bring in the buzzwords: alliterate, alliterate, alliterate
Let’s challenge 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 signals an unarguable intent – even if it did fail to mention, even once, children with special needs and disabilities.

Anita Kerwin-Nye is director at NotDeadFish

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  1. Peter Hitchens

    Why would supporters of sixth-form colleges, which select at 16, be opposed to selection at 11? And given that all good schools select covertly and opaquely in one way or another – catchment, feeder schools, parental contract, feigned or real teligious belief, ruthless exclusion – what is the particular objection to open and transparent selection on merit?

    • Peter – Selecting by catchment and feeder schools is not the same as selecting by ability. If there are insufficient applications from pupils within catchment or from feeder schools, then oversubscription criteria accepts applications from parents outside these areas. This does not apply to grammars – they would not accept applications from 11+ failures (except, apparently, in Northern Ireland where some grammars dip deeper into the ability pool if they can’t fill places).
      Parental contracts are not allowed under the School Admissions Code. And schools which use ‘ruthless exclusion’ to raise the ability level of their cohorts should be censured.
      ‘Feigned or real religious belief – that should be stopped. Schools could retain their claimed religious ethos but should not be able to discriminate on grounds of religion.

      • Clarification – Schools Admission Code says schools must not ‘place any conditions on the consideration of any application other than those in the oversubscription criteria published in their admission arrangements’. (para 1.9) This would include requiring parents to sign a contract. Any such requirement included in admission criteria would be unlawful.

    • Peter – Re selection at 16: sixth form colleges offer A levels – exams which require a particular level of achievement. Secondary schools, whether grammar or selective, offer the same exams. There is, therefore, no need to select at 11.
      What objections, then, remain for a ‘transparent selection on merit [at 11]’? First, it may advantage a few but the system disadvantages the many. Second, it encourages segregation. Third, it leads to a situation where children are judged by the school they attend rather than their actual qualities or achievements.