There will be a predictably polarised reaction to the decision by Harris Academy Upper Norwood in south London to ban street slang. The Twitter talk alleging “a white supremacist project with government funding” seemingly run by “imperialist dictators” will be counterbalanced by the legions of parents up and down the land emitting heartfelt cheers – me included.
It seems reasonable that any group of people, of any age, should be able to communicate in a private language that enforces their sense of community and belonging within a group. That’s more than just their right: it’s a positively healthy aspect of social living, and language as a whole gains from the vibrancy of street talk.
But beyond that there’s the wider world, where the inanities of “innit” and “know what I mean?” will be of no assistance in getting a job and feeling valued by society. How can society make that call in a blizzard of cozzes, ain’ts, likes and extras?
A couple of weeks ago on Four Thought on Radio 4, Lindsay Johns, who mentors young people at Leaders of Tomorrow in Peckham, spoke eloquently about street slang and his efforts to educate his young charges in using language in a way that’s going to let them get ahead – rather than, as he put it, “speech that makes you sound as if you’ve had a frontal lobotomy”. It is, he said, “spectacular self-sabotage”. This isn’t to denigrate anyone’s culture or background; it is simply an acknowledgement of life’s realities.
I asked Johns what he thought of the Harris school’s announcement. “What a fantastic idea!” he replied, noting that “it echoes our own zero-tolerance approach to ‘ghetto grammar’ down at Leaders of Tomorrow”.
It comes as no surprise that it’s a Harris school that has come down so heavily on street argot. The Harris Federation, set up by Lord Harris of Peckham, preaches an active return to traditional values of discipline, respect and good behaviour – zero-tolerance, not only of serious stuff like bullying and fighting, but also of more trivial transgressions like crooked ties and running down the stairs.
My son attends another Harris school, not far from Upper Norwood, and when we got him in last year the Harris ethos gave me a certain confidence that he had a decent chance of being well educated in the widest, roundest sense of the word. So far so good. A speech by the vice-principal at the beginning, laden as it was with much talk of discipline and not much of enjoyment, gave pause for thought, but it’s turned out to be a super school that my son really likes and in which he thrives.
He doesn’t mind the teachers stationed in the corridors between lessons looking out for wayward tie-knots and pupils walking on the left-hand side of the corridor rather than the right. He knows the boundaries, which aren’t oppressive, and he’s happy to keep within them.
As for his school’s street-slang policy, there’s zero-tolerance in English lessons, but otherwise, he says, teachers tend to treat it with a smirk rather than isolation or exclusion. Would I be happy if my son’s Harris school went the same way as Upper Norwood and clamped down on “ghetto grammar”? It would, I venture, be bare sick, blad.