Accents speak volumes

30th October 2015 at 00:00

When I was at school in the 1970s, our class was left in no doubt that there was a “correct” way of speaking. Saying “aye”, “wee” and not pronouncing your Ts was the wrong way, as the teacher was quick to point out.

On entering teaching I was glad that this type of social superiority had all but disappeared, along with other anachronisms such as getting the belt or being made to stand up if you got the answer wrong. However, a new report has caused me to reconsider my egalitarian principles – perhaps having higher standards of communication in the classroom would benefit pupils.

The study (, commissioned by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, finds that as a university education has become possible for a wider section of society, the top business, law and accountancy firms have turned their attention to other characteristics – such as how candidates sound – to select the type of employee they want. Unsurprisingly, they don’t favour strong regional or working-class accents.

It goes without saying that this is manifestly unfair, but pointing this out is hardly going to change a mindset that values background over ability. Unfortunately, I think it is the victims of this hidden prejudice who have to change – with the support of their teachers. What is the point of pushing our pupils towards university to give them a chance of being interviewed for the top jobs if, by ignoring how they sound, we may be hindering their chances of actually being hired?

Although the study examines the practices of businesses in England, we can hear it happening in all areas of Scottish life, from politics to sport to culture. The UK’s youngest-ever female MP, Mhairi Black, has reached Parliament without having to modify her clear but strong Paisley accent. But I don’t accept that a professor emeritus of modern German history at the University of Edinburgh would have dared call her “a slut” on Twitter if her accent had been different, as happened earlier this year.

Similarly, football may traditionally be seen as the sport of working-class Scots, but summarisers Billy Dodds and Derek Ferguson are rarities among their more middle-class colleagues. And on television you don’t have to wonder why the award-winning Limmy’s Show, delivered in a strong Glaswegian accent, was broadcast only in Scotland while the truly lamentable but clearly enunciated Mountain Goats is shown nationwide.

Identifying the problem is one thing, rectifying it another. Assessment of talk is part of the new National English qualifications, but I can’t imagine marking anyone down for accent. Saying to someone that how you speak – and by extension how your parents speak – is not good enough puts the teacher in an uncomfortable position. But I think it is a thistle worth grasping.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow

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