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Chris McGovern: Call teachers by their first name? More nonsense from the language police


Hands up if you think that when pupils use the terms “Sir” and “Miss” in school, they are discriminating against women? Not many hands are being raised, I suspect. However, as always, our educational experts know better.

According to The Times Educational Supplement, an emeritus professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University is claiming that the continuing use of “Sir” and of “Miss” in the classroom is a “a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status.”

Since “Sir” once only referenced someone who was a knight of the realm on horseback, and only applies to males, we are being told that it has no place in the 21st century. The ‘language police’ seem much in evidence these days; sometimes legitimately, perhaps, but this is, surely, going too far.

A basic fact about language is how it evolves and how, through regular and common usage, the meaning of words become modified or, even, change entirely. Only in recent decades, for example, has the word “gay’ become a reference to homosexuality. Its original meaning, back in the Middle Ages, was ‘joyful’. By the 17th century, however, it had developed a second meaning. It was often used in reference to female prostitution – a ‘gay woman’ was a whore and a ‘gay house’ a brothel.

Today, its meaning has changed again, of course. Are we to tell male members of the gay community that they have hi-jacked a word reserved for women? Are we to tell lesbian members of the gay community that they should not use the term ‘gay’ because of its 17th century connotations? Nonsense, of course!

Nowadays, the term “Sir” does not confer higher status then “Miss” in a school. It may have loftier origins but who, besides nit-picking academics, is thinking in those terms? Rather, both terms are respectful, even endearing. Given the current use of language, they are certainly not discriminatory.

We do not need to make mandatory the use of “Mr” plus surname or “Ms” plus surname, as is being suggested by a professor of linguistics at the University of California. In any case pupils move freely to these forms of address as they please. They are no more or less respectful and non-discriminatory than “Sir” and “Miss”.

Meanwhile, yet another academic, this time a professor from Sheffield Hallam University, is advocating that schools go even further. She wants pupils to address teachers by their first names. Having taught for 35 years in both the maintained sector and in the independent sector with pupils of all ages from 5 to 18, I think I can confidently predict that, in most schools, this would be a short step to anarchy.

Amongst the 24,000 schools in England, I know of only one that was able to allow pupils and teachers to be on first name terms and still be highly successful. The behaviour of pupils in this particular school was rated as ‘outstanding’ by inspectors. I think it was unique. It was the exception that proved the rule. I should know. I was its head teacher!

In education we have many important problems to solve but the use of “Sir” and of “Miss” is not one of them. Let schools decide these matters for themselves and be judged on the results.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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