Dr Julian Murphy has had a successful week. He’s the headmaster of an independent school called Loughborough Amherst school and he seems a bit press releasey. Do you know what I mean? Those press releasey headmasters? They’re regularly announcing something and not just in assembly. They pop up about as often as Michael O’Leary, but instead of saying that passengers will be deliberately given someone else’s luggage or thrown off the plane for going to the loo, it’s some teaching thing: maths should only happen after lunch or they’re replacing home economics with artisanal coalmining. Anthony Seldon and Eric Anderson were the market leaders – always ringing up with a theory instead of standing in a playground with a coffee and a whistle.
Maybe all heads of independent schools are press releasey nowadays? I assume there’s pressure to be. It must be at the bottom of the list on many a busy headteacher’s fridge. After do marking, find a new head of geography and get hold of some petrol for the minibus, send wacky educational theory to the Daily Mail. But Murphy is one of the few who ever gets round to it.
He first got round to it back in 2017 when he said he was abolishing school reports. His reasons were, he told the Independent, that “they end up using almost politician’s speak, reeling off the same phrases such as ‘very lively and enthusiastic in lessons’, which of course actually means they don’t behave well in class”, and that some teachers, “let’s say PE or maths teachers – find writing 200-word long reports is quite challenging”. He also banned posters of inspiring people with slogans such as “You can do anything!” on the basis that “when you’re an ordinary kid… and you don’t feel like a superhero, it’s not necessarily that helpful to be bombarded with examples of human achievement”.
I quite like his style. He tells it like it is. Well, actually, not any more he doesn’t. Last week’s ruse was more euphemistic. He’s banned staff, he explained to the i newspaper, from using the words “good” and “bad” to refer to pupils’ behaviour. Instead, they should say “skilful” and “unskilful”. What was great about this announcement, from Murphy’s point of view, was that Piers Morgan objected to it. That’s the absolute jackpot since Trump was banned from Twitter. Invoking the disapproval of Morgan will not only shift prospectuses but will get Murphy straight on to the Newsnight longlist for the next time they do a bit about literacy rates. How incredibly kind of Piers to help out like that.
It took a bit of effort, I suspect, because what Morgan tweeted about the policy didn’t feel like his best work. He said: “What on earth will these poor cosseted kids do when they’re exposed to the real world? This is so… BAD.” This implies that the most sensible way for a school to prepare its charges for the big wide world is simply to emulate it. The “sink or swim” approach. “Look at those poor cosseted toddlers wearing armbands.” “In the real world no one’s going to carefully explain to you how to read!” The fact that people are often blunt and rude, and sometimes violent and criminal, in the real world doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a sound idea to encourage those things inside a school.
What was great about this announcement, from Murphy’s point of view, was that Piers Morgan objected to it
This is how Murphy explained his new rule: “While I don’t want teachers to be soft, I also don’t want them to be shouty and make pupils feel guilty. I think it’s human psychology, even when you’re an adult – if people make you feel guilty, then you get angry and then actually that’s when you’re likely to play the blame game…” Aside from his use of the awful phrase “play the blame game”, I think I agree with that. It’s also quite skilful, in both its original sense and Murphy’s new one, to associate civilised behaviour with cleverness and merit rather than morality. I think that would be quite persuasive to teenagers. No one wants to be a goody-goody, but a skilfully-skilfully is potentially less naff. He’s removing the stigma of virtue from the concept of behaving well.
Still, in the long run, I’m not sure it’ll do any lasting skilful. Words quickly change their meanings and schoolchildren are a major driver of that. Playgrounds have taken every respectful or polite expression for disability ever devised and almost instantaneously weaponised them as terms of abuse. It won’t be long before “unskilful” is more contemptuous and invoking of guilt than “bad” ever was. Rudeness, like life itself, will find a way.
Another attempt to improve the world with language that was reported last week was a proposal to change the word “engineer” to “ingeniator”. This was suggested by Prof Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, chief executive of the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (or should that be Ingeniation?). Sadly for Elena, Piers Morgan voiced no objection, so it may not catch on.
Her point is that the word engineer no longer has connotations of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, so much as “people who fix TVs, washing machines, cars, the boiler – important jobs but not engineering jobs”, she told the Times diplomatically. “Engineering is not about engines but ingenuity and innovation.”
This proposal makes sense but has the opposite problem to Murphy’s. If the word engineer now covers two distinct jobs, a new word for one of them might be useful. So it could really stick. And, once it had, the strangeness of the word itself would stop being noticeable except to people who are stoned. Words such as snorkel, bumf and chestnut are routinely used without a flicker of amusement.
But there’s no doubt that, at the moment, ingeniator feels like a silly word. It has a ring of media speak to it, like it’s a zany and superfluous post they might have at an advertising agency. Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly got the word “genie” in it. “Come on guys, let’s give this lamp a rub and see what balloons out of the spout.” It just doesn’t sound like a very skilful job.