Analysis by Dina Kok
The Interim

A United Kingdom secondary school announced a startling new policy just prior to classes being resumed in early September: students will be permitted to swear at teachers five times during a lesson.

Weavers School in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire revealed the astonishing policy to parents and supporters with the rationale that the policy should improve the behaviour of the pupils. Assistant headmaster Richard White stated that the policy was aimed at 15 and 16 year-olds in two classes that are considered troublesome.

The policy is described to parents in a letter from White, according to a Daily Mail report, which read as follows: “Within each lesson, the teacher will initially tolerate (although not condone) the use of the f-word (or derivatives) five times and these will be tallied on the board so all students can see the running score. Over this number, the class will be spoken to by the teacher at the end of the lesson.”

Parents’ groups and various MPs have condemned the policy, claiming that it will backfire. It has been judged as “wholly irresponsible and ludicrous” by some. One father said it was “a misguided attempt to speak to kids on their own level.”

Headmaster Alan Large, however, has reported that he has received no complaints regarding the policy. “The reality,” he said, “is that the f-word is part of these young adults’ everyday language. As temporary policy, we are giving them a bit of leeway, but we want them to think about the way they talk and how they might do better.”

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe questioned the reasoning and has characterized it as Alice in Wonderland (that is, backwards and confusing). “What next?” she asked. “Do we allow people to speed five times or burgle five times. You don”t improve something by allowing it, you improve something by discouraging it.” Educators as well have raised an outcry against such a policy. Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, has commented, “In these sort of situations, teachers should be setting clear principles of ‘do and don’t.’ They should not be compromising in an apparent attempt to please the pupils. This will send out completely the wrong message.”

Weavers School plans to counteract the possible “incorrect message” by initiating a “praise postcard” campaign. These postcards will be sent home to the parents of students who abstain from swearing and who diligently attend their classes and lessons. The initiative comes after the school was criticized as “not effective” by Ofsted inspectors last November. Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education in the U.K.

Regardless of this balance to the new policy, educators still continue to argue that the policy will be ineffective. According to Seaton, “Youngsters will play up to this and ensure they use their five goes, demeaning the authority of the teacher.”

Although the Weavers School is attempting to create more effective and open lines of communication between the teachers and the students, they are in reality confusing and muffling the lines even further. The students will learn that they may speak to their teachers with complete disrespect and get away with it. They will also learn that they, as students, are the ones wielding the true authority within the school.

By providing students with essentially a “get out of jail free card,” the guidelines accept inappropriate behaviour, even if it is only five times. Assistant headmaster White has described that through the policy, teachers will “tolerate, although not condone, the use of the f-word.” Do children understand the difference between tolerating and condoning? Probably not. To them, a teacher who tolerates swearing five times with no repercussions is a teacher who condones such behaviour. If Richard White thinks that this is an appropriate and effective way to run a classroom, then perhaps he needs to consider returning to Kindergarten.

Dina Kok, a regular contributor to The Interim, graduated from Brock University in 2005 with a B.A. in child and youth studies. She now teaches kindergarten at Credo Christian School in Woodbridge, Ont.