Education Column: Different accents should be celebrated in our classrooms

Queen's English should be a thing of the past
Queen's English should be a thing of the past

I’ve been thinking about the diversity in Sheffield schools over the Easter break.

The city has so many strengths when it comes to multiculturalism, with many schools working so well with minority groups and children for whom English is a second language.

But it’s not the diversity of our student population that has occupied my thoughts this week – it’s the diversity of our teaching staff.

Schools have long been a place where children come into contact with adults from a wide range of backgrounds and benefit from the varied experiences they bring to the classroom.

When I was at school in Sheffield, I fondly remember being taught by adults who had grown up in Sheffield and those who had come from further afield.

There was the history teacher from Ireland who taught me about both sides of the troubles in Belfast. There was the ex-miner from Barnsley who introduced me to the regeneration of pit villages.

I was introduced to Shakespeare by a passionate Geordie who added a north-east accent to Romeo and Juliet. And I remember an American who was seconded for a year and expanded my vocabulary in an alarming manner.

The diversity amongst teaching staff is important. It brings difference into the classroom, pushes back boundaries and increases tolerance.

I was alarmed to hear, then, that many teachers have reported trying to change their accent in the classroom to avoid being singled out and treated like an outsider.

Be it a northern teacher trying to make an impact in London’s inner cities or a practitioner from the south west working in rural Cumbria, some of our finest teachers are actually worried about how they sound.

And research carried out at Manchester’s Institute of Education identified a disturbing trend when speaking to individual teachers – sometimes school managers are directing their staff to ‘correct’ their regional accents.

One teacher was asked to ‘tone down’ her northern accent to be more of a role model to girls in a private school. Another from London was actually told to write the word ‘water’ with a capital T to remind them how to say it.

This is shocking bullying and should be challenged at all levels – but, of course, when new staff are starting out on their careers in a strange place the last thing they want to do is upset the apple cart.

And so we actually have some teachers in different parts of the country modernising their accents to fit in, unbelievable though it may sound.

As if teachers don’t have enough to be getting on with, rather than giving themselves elocution lessons. These really are tales I thought we would have left in the 1960s.

There’s something wonderful about hearing different accents in a school staff room. Jamaican accents chatter with Canadian. Those with a Scouse accent converse with Brummies.

The last thing we want in Sheffield is for all our teaching staff to have a South Yorkshire accent. It would raise barriers and go against everything the 21st Century is meant to be about.

Instead, let’s celebrate the fantastic range of accents and dialects that we have in this country by introducing them to students in our schools and ensuring them that the Queen’s English, Received Pronunciation and the whole 1930s BBC presenter style is a thing of the past.

If you’re a teacher with a strong accent delivering lessons in a region you’re new to, things can be difficult. You’re likely to come in for a bit of stick, and the kids will also probably compete to do the best possible impression of you.

But that’s not a reason to change. Good teachers come with a range of accents and modifying the way you naturally speak is wrong.

Hopefully none of this goes off in Sheffield schools. My own experience in schools I have worked in is that a range of accents are welcomed and celebrated.

Variety is the spice of life.