I enjoyed watching ITV’s “School Swap” programme recently. For those who have not seen it, it involves three “students” from Bemrose Comprehensive school in Derby swapping places for one week with three “pupils” from Warminster School, in the independent sector. Much was made of the independent sector’s traditional emphasis on character building, which I would argue has been misinterpreted by some in the state sector to justify child centred teaching, alongside favourable references to Guy Claxton and Ken Robinson. However, as a linguist, I find the use of the word “students” to describe children who are in fact “pupils” is rather revealing.
Some will simply regard the increasing use of this word in UK state schools as an example of American influence, since in the USA it is used for anybody, of whatever age, who happens to be learning or studying. Possibly, but since it seems to be used exclusively among more recent head teachers who took the National Professional Qualification for head teachers/senior leaders, I wonder whether referring to pupils as “students” is a prerequisite for passing.
My languages happen to be German, Russian and French and I know that all three have different words for “student” and “pupil.” It may be that head teachers in schools in France, Germany and Russia have also started insisting that children between the ages of 3 and 16 are referred to as “students”, but I suspect not.
Why, you might be thinking, am I quibbling about such a minor point? The reason is that, in the world of education, the choice of vocabulary tells us a great deal, more than is always apparent to an outsider. The use of the word “student” to describe a pupil is indicative of a certain attitude to teaching and learning. It was very noticeable to me that the head teacher of Bemrose consistently referred to her charges as “students”, whereas the head teacher of Warminster used the term “pupils”(traditionally regarded as correct in British English). One word which, to me, spoke volumes about the differences between the two schools.