Dr Alex Baratta, Lecturer in Language, Linguistics and Communications at the Manchester Institute of Education, discusses the ambiguity of ‘articulacy’ in the Teachers’ Standards and its effects on teachers and their accents.
- The Teachers’ Standards state that teachers in England and Wales must use standard English and demonstrate ‘articulacy’.
- There is no mention of accent in the standards, yet some teachers, particularly those from the North/Midlands, are told to modify their accents.
- Should teachers be expected to modify their accents, and, if so, does this need to be added to the Teachers’ Standards for clarity?
Within teacher training in England and Wales, the Teachers’ Standards, by which trainee teachers are judged, do not say a great deal about the use of language, beyond a need for teachers to use standard English, regardless of subject, and to demonstrate ‘articulacy’. Standard English refers to grammatical usage, but says nothing about accent. Likewise, while the word ‘articulacy’ might be more suggestive of one’s accent, who decides what is or is not ‘articulate’ in terms of how teachers speak? There are several potential issues that emanate from this broad starting point:
- In Britain, negative perceptions and evaluations still exist toward broad regional accents; in particular, what might the implications be for trainee teachers (and established teachers) who have such accents?
- Teachers, notably phonics teachers, need to be understood by their students. If broad accents are a potential stumbling block to this, might it be legitimate to ask teachers to modify their accent in some way (if not expect them to self-modify)?
- On the other hand, is it reasonable for teachers to display their otherwise unmodified accents for the students as a means to reflect the linguistic reality that exists outside the classroom, in which there is of course much accent diversity?
- Against a societal backdrop of respect for diversity and equality, might we consider this from the perspective of an area that has otherwise been overlooked within teaching – accent?
In addressing these questions, I obtained the views of 41 teachers who teach, or are training to teach, within England. The teachers’ accents represent a linguistic variety, including Scottish, Irish (North and South) and the North, South and Midlands of England. I also obtained the views of 55 local schoolchildren in the Manchester area, representing three schools (private primary, state primary and a state secondary).
The students overwhelmingly agreed that no one should be forced to modify their accent and to do so might lead to feelings of fraudulence or even be regarded as an example of linguistic prejudice, also citing the need for teachers to display a variety of accents which reflect the real world.
In terms of the teachers’ perspective regarding the role that their accent plays in teaching, the following broad results are presented:
- Northern and Midlands teachers were more likely to be given directives to modify their accents by mentors as compared with Southern teachers. This applied to teachers of both primary and secondary schools and even for those teaching in their home region.
- The results also show that for Northern/Midlands teachers, there is a suggested expectation for teachers to adopt Southern pronunciation if teaching there, in words such as bath and
- The mentors cited the need to be understandable as their rationale for the directive for teachers to modify their accents. Several teachers, however, perceive it to be based more on accent prejudice, and a means to avoid the aforementioned negative perceptions of certain British accents. Some teachers pointed out, ‘I can still teach as well as someone who speaks posher’ and ‘There’s nothing wrong with my intellect’.
- Many teachers believe that there is a need to use their unmodified accents, as a means to reflect the linguistic reality in the real world, as well as being a means for students to relate to them better.
Specific comments made by mentors
- A secondary art teacher from London was told by her mentor that her accent was ‘unprofessional’, and he told her to write the word ‘water’ with a capital T (in order for her not to omit this sound from her speech).
- A teacher from Rossendale was told that unless he modified his accent, his interview for a PGCE course would be stopped.
- A Midlands primary teacher was told that if she could not modify her accent to Southern pronunciation, then it was ‘best to go back to where you came from’.
While we could suggest that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, there is clear evidence, even within this small-scale research, that accent is an issue that comes up in teacher training, and beyond. This suggests that perhaps the current Teachers’ Standards do not, in themselves, need revising, but perhaps adding to. Citing the question posed by this blog, I suggest that we need to raise this question nationally, as a means to engage both mentors and teachers in order to determine a) should accent be addressed in the Teachers’ Standards and b) if so, how and why?
Otherwise, we are potentially left with a linguistic grey area with regard to this one crucial aspect of teacher identity. This is an area where more guidance is perhaps needed at a time when negative comments regarding accent are seen by some as reflective of linguistic preference.
Certainly, if there is a de facto expectation for Northern/Midlands teachers to adopt Southern pronunciation if teaching there, at least for phonics teaching, this need not be a controversial issue per se if it were put in writing. We might also consider the teachers’ views, reflective of a need to respect the equality and diversity issues that are discussed in the classroom and address them within teaching from an accent-based perspective.