Don't read on if the f-word offends you, but then you won't find out why swearing is losing popularity. Hannah Frankel reports
Do you give your pupils a good bollocking for swearing, or do you let it go right over your effing head? That is the question. The truth is that swearing is so ubiquitous in society today, it inevitably trickles - or sometimes floods - through to schools. The evidence is all around. From Hugh Grant's ode to "fuck it" in Four Weddings and a Funeral to French Connection's advertising slogan, FCUK, and Gordon Ramsey's television show, The F-word - swearing is omnipresent in modern Britain. With adults so quick to swear, and foul language used so freely around them, it is little wonder pupils swear, says Peter Coates, headteacher of Wednesfield School in Wolverhampton.
He felt that swearing was minimising pupils' ability to express themselves succinctly.
"I felt some of them were becoming overly reliant on bad language, to such an extent that it ceased to have any meaning," Peter says. "They were prisoners of it. It was used as punctuation rather than vocabulary." For this reason, Peter invited Channel 4 to visit his school for five months and film the way young people really talk. The subsequent 50-minute programme, Cutting Edge: Mind your F-ing Language, contained a fair amount of swearing. It also divided opinion. "Is this school representative in terms of behaviour of most schools," an incredulous teacher asked on The TES online staffroom, "or is it a particularly bad example?"
Simon Donald, founder of Viz magazine and author of an 8,000-word Profanisaurus of rude words and phrases, visited the school as part of the programme. He was surprised to find that he agreed with Peter about pupils'
swearing. He believes it can be inventive and vibrant if used sparingly, but - with the exception of "Cheddar Bell" and "Your Mum" - was disappointed with the pupils' efforts.
As part of the television experiment, the Wednesfield pupils had in-depth discussions about swearing in society. They are sensitive to issues of equality, gender, race and disabilities, according to Peter, and challenge people who use racist language. One girl told the TV crew that she would rather be described as the "C-word" than as the "N-word" - something the Big Brother producers would sympathise with, having evicted a contestant who used the more taboo N-word.
The majority of pupils decided to introduce a zero-tolerance approach to swearing at the school (pictured above). Those who break the ban are punished and may even be excluded. Peter says it gives pupils a much-needed excuse not to swear. He believes they want a "get-out clause", while the results will have positive repercussions. "I feel that by modifying language, we can modify bad behaviour, such as bullying, and anecdotal evidence suggests it is working."
But at Summerhill, the famously democratic private school in Suffolk, the focus is on preventing bullying, not words. As such, swearing is allowed throughout the campus, although not beyond the school's boundaries. If there is a problem with aggressive behaviour, it is dealt with by the seven pupil ombudsmen - the language itself is incidental.
"They're just words," argues Zoe Redhead, the headteacher. "They're only insulting if they're said in a certain way. If a pupil feels like they're being picked on or intimidated, then that is diplomatically sorted out in a meeting. The language used while someone is being bitchy is superfluous to the actual problem." Because it is not taboo, pupils rarely swear, Zoe adds.
Most state schools clamp down on swearing. One teacher on the TES staffroom recalls a boy who could not stop himself. "He was always polite and did his work, but he just kept swearing. He'd swear, apologise and then swear again." Although the teacher only reminded him not to swear, others went further, and the boy reacted badly. Eventually he was expelled.
At St Monica's RC High School in Prestwich, Manchester, pupils are temporarily excluded if they are caught swearing. To swear at the headteacher is a permanent exclusion offence. So, swearing is rarely heard.
"I think as a Catholic school, we have high standards and expectations of our pupils," says Louise Derbyshire, a teacher. They have to realise swearing is unacceptable in certain settings, and that includes schools, she says.
There is little swearing at King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, which has clear sanctions, including internal exclusion. "We explain to pupils why we disapprove of swearing," says Geoff Barton, headteacher. "It's discourteous and leaves people feeling intimidated."
Turning a deaf ear tacitly condones it, Geoff adds.
Peter Coates is more ambivalent. "Teachers have always had to ignore what they weren't meant to hear," he says. "If a pupil uses bad language to them or another pupil, that's a disciplinary issue, but if they overhear an 'accidental' expletive, they need to make a judgment call."
Swearing by numbers 1936: Music hall comedian Hector Thaxter becomes the first man to say "arse" on the radio.
1965: Kenneth Tynan becomes the first man to say "fuck" on television.
1967: After watching an episode of Till Death Us Do Part that includes 44 uses of the word "bloody", Mary Whitehouse declares: "the end of civilisation as we know it".
1972: Oxford English Dictionary includes the word "fuck" for the first time.
1976: Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols appears on live TV and calls presenter Bill Grundy "A fucking rotter".
1983: Jools Holland says "groovy fuckers" on a live broadcast of The Tube and is suspended for six weeks.
1996: Student hackers tinker with Britain's first talking bus stop in Leeds, with the result that a queue of passengers are greeted with the words: "Fuck off and walk, you lazy bastards".
1999: With the advent of Channel 4's Bremner, Bird and Fortune and The 11 O'Clock Show, all known swear words are finally used openly in entertainment television.
2005: the BBC receives a record number of complaints (55,000) about its decision to broadcast Jerry Springer: The Opera, which contains 8,000 obscenities - but only if each swear word is multiplied by the number of chorus members singing it.