The account in The Times of the murder by stabbing of Mary Maguire, a teacher in Leeds, quoted a recent report by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) about the school in which it took place. ‘Students,’ said the report, ‘say they feel very safe in the school. It is clear they have a good understanding of how to keep themselves safe.’
Who inspects these inspectors? If OFSTED is the only guardian of educational standards in Britain, the country faces a very grim future indeed.
The OFSTED inspectors appear not to know the difference between pupils and students. Quite apart from the pedagogic distinction, to call a child a student who is compulsorily attending a school is a little like calling a sentenced prisoner a client or customer of his prison. It is bureaucratic Newspeak.
But far worse is the sentence that follows. I have often wondered whether such language corresponds to thoughts in the writer’s mind, or whether his thoughts have to be translated into it. The question arises as to which would be worse.
What does ‘understanding of how to keep themselves safe’ entail? Does it mean they know how to behave with prudence or circumspection? And is knowledge of how to do a thing the same as actually doing it?
Perhaps ‘keeping themselves safe’ means carrying a knife at all times or wearing a stab-proof vest like the police. Perhaps it means knowledge of the Highway Code, that they should look left, look right, look left again before crossing the road. Perhaps it means the practice of that most romantic of all modern activities, safe sex. Perhaps it means knowledge of the latest dietary recommendations and how to call NHS Direct or child helplines in case of sexual assault by stepfathers. It is unlikely to have much to do with the solution of quadratic equations or subjunctives in French or Spanish.
Psychiatric nurses and social workers now routinely use the phrase ‘promises to keep himself safe’ of patients who have either thought of or attempted suicide. Patients who ‘promise to keep themselves safe’ often hang themselves or throw themselves in front of trains shortly afterwards. It would be comical if it were not so tragic.
By their language shall ye know them. But knowing them is not the same, alas, as keeping ourselves safe from them. ‘They’ and their language are everywhere, from Parliament to Tesco. Their language in not intended to express but to prevent thought.