Scottish education: Teachers should give children the confidence to speak up, not ban words from the classroom – Cameron Wyllie

Recently, there was a flurry of newspaper reporting about the decision by Ark All Saints Academy, a secondary school in London, to ban the use of certain words and phrases in the classroom.

The confidence to speak up in class is really important, says former headteacher Cameron Wyllie (Picture: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
The confidence to speak up in class is really important, says former headteacher Cameron Wyllie (Picture: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

These included “oh my God!” (the school follows a vaguely Christian philosophy); “basically” and “so” at the start of sentences; “cut his eyes” and “oh my days!”, neither of which I had heard of before, the former roughly translating as “he gave me a dirty look” and the latter being an exclamation of astonishment, approval or disapproval; those of us over 40 might say “my goodness” or even “good grief” instead.

I was pleased to note that this attempt to change their students’ language was only in the classroom – there was to be no attempt to ban any particular use of language in the playground. That was a relief since the prospect of a schoolyard prohibition might have reminded Scots of the ban on Gaelic in school life (or indeed, any life) following the 1745 Jacobite uprising.

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Anyway, for me it had echoes of little (actually, tiny) Cameron proceeding to school, aged five, travelling in from West Lothian to be educated privately in Edinburgh.

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I arrived at the school in which I was to learn for 13 years with a fairly strong Central Belt, staunchly working class, accent, which came from parents and grandparents alike; my paternal grandmother, in particular, spoke pure Lallans ‘English’ with plenty of dialect expressions thrown in. When I did something daft she would ask if I was a doughnut – at least that’s what I thought – but she was using the word “donnert” meaning “stunned”.

However, my Primary 1, 2 and 3 teacher, Miss Murray, whom I adored, was having none of this, and, very quickly, gave me individual tuition in Morningside English. I was not to say, of the meat of the pig, “poark” I was to say “pawrk”. I was not to say I had been to the beach at Gullin, but to Gillin, and so on and so on.

Miss Murray, bless her, changed my accent entirely, and I am certain she thought she was doing a good and necessary thing. Interestingly, my mother was full of approval: I was at a private school to aspire socially; my grandma demurred, worried that I was turning into a wee snob.

This new attempt to encourage young people to eschew certain words and phrases when in class does raise interesting questions; whatever we think, I am sure, like Miss Murray, the school in London meant well.

Its mission statement is that it prepares its students for university and the workplace, but I wonder if it’s worth sacrificing the variety and development of English which has come with being young – more or less forever – for the possibility that in an interview for a course or a job someone is going to say “Oh my days! That’s a hard question!”

In my English language classes at university in the 1970s, we would have been taught that this was a matter of ‘register’, and that we have all learned, over time, to vary what we say, according to the formality of the occasion involved.

I confess that, from adolescence, I have sworn occasionally, but I never swore during the many occasions when I led a school assembly (tempted though I might occasionally have been).

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This message about formality obviously extends into the distinction between spoken and written English and yes, indeed, as an English teacher I disliked concluding paragraphs beginning with “basically” but it wasn’t a deal-breaker. No doubt the media has, heaven forfend, exaggerated the whole issue.

Here in Scotland we are, of course, trying to close the poverty-related educational attainment gap and I believe that one of the key ways to do that is to encourage young people to find confidence in their own spoken voice.

It’s a stated aim (one of the “capacities”) of the Curriculum for Excellence that young Scots should be “confident individuals”. For centuries, the Scots have been a relatively taciturn people – hence the old joke about the university professor saying “good morning” to a class in England and hearing them say “good morning” back to him; in Scotland, the professor says “good morning” and the students write it down.

Things are not quite that extreme these days, but I’ve got no doubt that telling young people they can’t use certain expressions in the classroom must inevitably inhibit them from contributing.

So, (see, I’ve done it myself) instead of worrying too much about linguistic detail, we should simply be encouraging young Scots to talk and talk, using their actual voices rather than those of online personas, and such encouragement is of course yet more vital following the socially isolating period of the pandemic.

I hope many schools in Scotland will try out ideas like the already well-established Speak Up Scotland programme run by Young Speakers Scotland, a charity based in Edinburgh which teaches young people from less advantaged backgrounds to debate, and thus how to express themselves, state their opinions, make their point... argue with their parents, even!

Such confidence – in the classroom, in the workplace, in the tutorial – is really important. Of course, it’s also important that the young people actually have something to say, but I know that colleagues in teaching will agree that though we might occasionally be irritated by the blowhard who loves to talk (eh… I was that child), we are much more concerned about the pupil who sits in silence, brimming with good ideas. Oh my days! Let’s get them all talking!

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Cameron Wyllie writes a blog called A House in Joppa

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