Non-Standard Children

“Your children,” said the Inspector, “Display a rather idiosyncratic use of the English language.”

“Like Shakespeare,” said Mr Briggs.

“What I mean,” tried the Inspector, “Is that they can’t spell…”

Mr Briggs was really ready for that.  “No, they can spell.  They just enjoy themselves with what they have learnt.  Do you know Shakespeare spelt his name six different ways?”

“What I know is not at stake here, Mr Briggs…”

“So, for example, you would not worry that you can’t spell floccinaucinihilipilification, but some of my eight-year-olds can?”

“Standard English is unambiguous and clear when it is spelt correctly…”

“But we have taught them phonical awareness and phonics skills, and so they try to write sky s-c-i-e.  I find it charming.  Which is more correct, in absolute terms, Inspector?  Which one contains a greater density of correctness per phoneme?”

“If they won’t learn correct spellings from you, where will they learn them?”

“From books!  And maybe greengrocer’s.”

“It is all very well them using non-standard spellings in the playground or at home, but we simply must insist that at school they use correct English.”

Mr Briggs really felt the lava rumbling in his belly.  “Well, yes,” he deadpanned.  “Because I became a teacher because I want my children to maintain a complete and absolute distinction between their life at home and their experiences at school.  I want them to understand that whatever they value at home is worthless here, and however they speak or write there, it needs to be unspoken or unwritten here.”

The Inspector sipped his weak, instant coffee.  “Good.  I am glad you are following the policy amendment memorandum on home-school relations after all.  I had heard some worrying things about this school.”

“And then,” continued Mr Briggs, “We might at last get all the quiet children to speak.  It will really help if members of staff are vigilant and ready to get them to speak in full sentences – to correct them and insist they pronounce their glottal stops correctly.  And to assess them regularly – this will be a profitable and enjoyable enterprise that will help and smooth the process of teaching spelling and reading.”

“Perhaps I have not so much to teach you after all, Mr Briggs.”

“And when we have taught them to regulate their language – because, of course, there is no difficulty in getting any of the children to express themselves at all – and to recognise the situations in which they can dominate and assert themselves by speaking in formal, clipped tones, the world will open like a flower before them, and they will walk into whatever job they dream of.”

“Of which they dream, Mr Briggs.  Please don’t end your sentences with prepositions.”

Mr Briggs walked over to the working wall, where his beloved polar bears were once again capturing the imagination of his class.  One note from a quietly-spoken Romanian girl read ‘Polr bares sleepe in dens on stip slopes wear othr polr bares can’t get them’  He smiled to see that his lesson on abbreviations and apostrophes had struck home.

“If it were really true,” he said, without turning around, “That access to higher education is denied these children because of their lack of standard English, then we have more than one option.  We can change the children, or we can change the system.  Why should we teach the children to fit to the shape of the world around them?  Why should we teach them that that is the way the world works?  Why should we accept the injustice?  If we really wanted to change it, shouldn’t we engineer some sort of response?  Who better to do so than the architects of tomorrow’s society, the teachers?  Because children may leave school reading, or writing, or they may not, but not a one will leave without absorbing and internalising our values – the unspoken much more than the spoken.  They will forget our bullying policy and instead they will take it for granted that we separate the world into a minority of bullies and a majority of victims.  They will remember that the problem lies with someone else, not with me.  They will forget their order for sitting in line in assembly but they will remember that children should be seen and not heard.  They might remember the shape of a courgette seed and that you can make green paint in more than one way, and they might extrapolate from that that there is more than one way of skinning a cat.  But if we let them they will also assume that the world is full of the rulers and the ruled, the winners and the losers, the speaking and the silent.”

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