Why one teacher's campaign to ban `banter' is no joke

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Term blurs the line between ribbing and bullying, he argues

"Just saying `banter' or `bantz' over and over again is not a substitute for actual amusing conversation," Will (played by Simon Bird) points out tersely in The Inbetweeners 2.

Many teachers, subjected to what must feel like endless puerile wordplay on the term in recent months, would surely holler in agreement.

Originating in television shows such as The Inbetweeners and Bad Education, phrases including "Archbishop of Banterbury", "Bantom of the Opera" and "Bantanamo Bay" are driving school staff to distraction. But one teacher has decided that enough is enough: Mike Stuchbery has taken the radical step of banning the B-word from his classroom at Lynn Grove High School in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.

The reason for his decision, though, is anything but a joke. Writing for the TES website (bit.lyBanningBanter), he claims that, rather than being used to describe "light-hearted joking" or a "gentle ribbing of a friend", banter has effectively become an "acceptable, friendlier sounding term for bullying".

"If I catch someone stealing another student's pencil case, calling a fellow pupil a derogatory name or thumping them on the back, nine times out of 10 I'll be met with, `Siiiiir, it's just bantaaaaaaaah'," Mr Stuchbery writes. "It's as if kids think that squawking these words in the tone and cadence of an East End fishmonger is some sort of magic get-out-of-jail-free card."

Viewers of Educating the East End will also be familiar with the refrain "It's only banter", frequently uttered in Mr Bispham's class. Use of the word can be traced back at least as far as Thomas D'Urfey's 1677 play Madam Fickle, but it has become increasingly controversial in recent years.

The term became politically loaded after it was used to describe text messages sent by football manager Malky Mackay. The League Managers Association's description of their content as "friendly text message banter" provoked an angry response. Former England player Stan Collymore criticised the LMA's "acceptance of the `banter' of casual racism".

"Banter attempts to mask inappropriate, appalling behaviour under the guise of some sort of ancient, noble, peculiarly British tradition," Mr Stuchbery, an Australian, argues in his blog post. "Banter is also loathsome because it shifts the blame in any situation to the victim. It is classic victim-blaming.

" `It's just banter' makes it seem as if the problem rests with the person who has suffered the insult. The kid on the receiving end is further marginalised because they don't get it; they're not part of the joke."

His comments have generated a groundswell of support from teachers on Twitter.

Carrie Herbert, founder of the Red Balloon Learner Centre Group, which helps victims of bullying, said the word banter was commonly being used to describe "really unpleasant and hurtful behaviour".

"If you're on the receiving end of bullying, it is not a joke," Dr Herbert added. "When banter starts verging on being bullying, you've got to stop it."

Dan Roberts, deputy headteacher of Devonport High School for Boys in Plymouth, came out in support of Mr Stuchbery. "There's a fine line between banter and bullying," he said. "People use banter as a means of excusing or covering up their behaviour.

"I think it crosses the line and becomes bullying when it's repeated over a period of time with the intention to hurt somebody. If someone asks you to stop and you carry on, that isn't banter."

In his blog post, Mr Stuchbery vows to explain to all his students that the word can no longer be used as an "excuse for inappropriate behaviour".

"Instead, I'm going to look my students dead in the eye and ask them point-blank: `Why did you do it? Why did you steal his pencil case? Why did you thump her? Give me a solid reason.' From now on, I will demand that students be accountable for their behaviour - no more escape clauses."

`It's used to mask unpleasant behaviour'

Carrie Herbert founded the first Red Balloon Learner Centre in Cambridge in 1996, to support children who were victims of bullying in mainstream education. Since then, five more centres have opened across the country.

Dr Herbert is in complete agreement with Mr Stuchbery's stance on banter. "It is used to mask really unpleasant and hurtful behaviour, as if it is just a joke," she says. "If the person on the receiving end of the banter is not in a position to dish out banter as well, it is bullying.

"Sometimes you get teachers who put students down and say it is `just banter'. If you're putting somebody down and having a laugh at their expense, that has got to stop."

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