When did Pupils become Students?
A modern shift in terminology
06 February 2016
There was a time, perhaps as recently as 30 years ago, when almost every child or teenager attending school in the UK was referred to as a pupil. When they went on to higher education those pupils then became students.
But in the last three decades there has been a change. In most schools, children are now called students, though not by everyone. Unsurprisingly, older teachers often prefer to use pupil, the word they grew up with, and in private schools that I visit pupil is still the more commonly used term.
So what led to the change among younger teachers and in almost all state schools?
In the USA, anyone attending an educational establishment has been called a student for as long as folk can remember. So perhaps this is just a case of creeping Americanisation. But if that's the case, it seems to have been adopted willingly by British teachers, many of whom now call a six-year-old a student without batting an eyelid. Student has connotations of responsibility, so perhaps this word reflects a maturing of the relationship between teacher and child since the 1980s, with children being given more responsibility and playing a more active role in their own learning.
The word pupil once had connections to being a 'ward', somebody in the care and protection of a teacher, and hence perhaps a child who is less able to take responsibility for their own learning and needs more guidance.
There are interesting nuances of meaning here, and I do get a sense that the word pupil is now seen as rather quaint and old-fashioned. But I still don't feel comfortable referring to my six year old as a student, however responsible she is.
And let's face it, there are many 16 year olds - even 20 year olds - who do little to merit the label of student. I'm told that the warden at an Oxford college used to say: "Student is an expression of hope. Undergraduate is a statement of fact."