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Suffolk: ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ still popular currency in Suffolk

PUBLISHED: 09:48 15 May 2014 | UPDATED: 09:48 15 May 2014

Old fashioned schoolmaster in traditional gown and mortar hat

Old fashioned schoolmaster in traditional gown and mortar hat

2004 Getty Images

A survey of Suffolk’s teaching establishments found almost universal opposition to the suggestion by some academics that school pupils should drop the terms Sir and Miss when speaking to teachers.

Only the East Anglian Daily Times’s own Liz Nice sympathised with the view that the formal references were unnecessary.

According to Jennifer Coates, emeritus professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University, it is “depressing” that women were referred to in school by a term that denoted “low status” compared with men.

She said: “Sir is a knight, but Miss is ridiculous, it doesn’t match Sir at all.”

Education historian Jacob Middleton told the Times Education Supplement the different titles, widely used in schools as opposed to terms including “ma’am”, embodied the “massive status disparity and sexism of former years”.

Professor Sara Mills, a discourse researcher at Sheffield Hallam University, said pupils could instead refer to their teachers by their first names.

She said: “Sometimes teachers find that they try to stress the similarities between them, rather than trying to keep as distant as possible.”

However Simon Letman, the headteacher at Holbrook Academy, disagreed.

“It’s a tradition we have had for generations, and I for one think it should be preserved,” he said.

“Too much familiarity can breed contempt.

“We are trying to run communities based on order, discipline and mutual respect and young people should show older people respect when it’s due.”

Dr Letman added: “Sadly that respect has been eroded away over recent years. I have been doing this for 26 years and children these days don’t show teachers the respect they used to.”

Graham White, secretary of Suffolk NUT, said it was a “no-no” for pupils to use their teachers’ first names.

“I think that society has become more familiar and certainly some students will call you ‘mate’. You have to say, ‘I’m not your mate’. We have to discourage that informality,” he said.

Howard Lay, headteacher at Samuel Ward Academy and winner of Suffolk County Council’s Educational Leader of the Year Award, said: “Schools are not democracies. We need to signal a professional distance and, particularly at a time when you get so many cases of adults crossing the line, it’s even more important these days to make clear to the kids the distinction between pupils and teachers. One way to do that is formal addresses.”

He added that it was quicker and easier for pupils to use the terms Sir and Miss.

Geoff Robinson, the leader of Suffolk and Norfolk Initial Teacher Training, said the terms were used “so casually and so universally that they have gone beyond any scrutiny about sexism or whatever. People actually don’t give a second thought to it. Whether you are Mrs, Miss or Ms, people just call you Miss. It’s just a generic term; they don’t mean anything by it.”

It is important, he said, to “denote professional distance between the teacher and pupil”.

Meanwhile on our website, a poll found an overwhelming majority in favour of keeping the terms. 92% of almost 300 people said they didn’t think using ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’ was outdated or sexist.

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Geoff Barton: Academics have missed the point

The issue of language in schools has been in the news this week. A university professor, Jennifer Coates, has claimed that expecting students to call teachers Miss or Sir is sexist. It apparently undermines the status of woman.

The reasoning goes like this: the word Sir denotes power and the word Miss denotes powerlessness or triviality.

Try it for yourself. Visualise Sir Alan Sugar or Sir Alex Ferguson. You see them as powerful and authoritative, right? Now (for readers of a certain age) think of Miss Jean Brodie, the fiercely charismatic teacher of Muriel Spark’s novel, or Miss Piggy, the feisty porcine diva of The Muppets? Do they seem trivial and marginalised in comparison? Or are they not fair examples? In which case, can you think of others. I couldn’t – which perhaps does suggest an imbalance in the way women and men are labelled.

When I discussed the Miss/Sir power issue with my own Year 11 English class this morning they thought Jennifer Coates’s theory was nonsense. It may be. But let’s not dismiss it quite yet.

We know from very good research in the 1970s by a woman called Dale Spender that English can often seem (as she puts it) a “man-made language”. She catalogues more than 100 words that are used to define women in a negatively sexual way – words such as slut, whore, slapper plus many other more colourful examples.

Now think how many terms there are to describe men. You’ll struggle to get beyond 10.

So in the pristine world of university linguistics, there’s no doubt that language can be steeped in sexism.

But the tradition of referring to a teacher as Sir or Miss has, I think, a rather specific meaning in schools. It’s a convention we don’t encounter overseas in the schools we are partnered up with. Sir and Miss aren’t used by pupils in Shanghai or Iraq or Finland or Spain or Germany.

But different places do things differently and, just as most UK schools insist on the formality of a school uniform, we are also reassured by the sense of detached respect that the honorifics Sir and Miss bring with them.

So while I admire Jennifer Coates’s linguistic analysis, I don’t think it exposes school-based sexism.

In my earliest days as a rookie English teacher, I would be called Mr Barton and Sir. I still am, 30 years on. They referred to my future wife as Miss Nettleton and Miss. I don’t think the students were putting us into some imagined pecking order of status and authority. In fact, I know that they thought she was by far the better teacher. I have reluctantly to accept that she was and still is.

So Sir and Miss are handy labels. They carry with them a sense of courtesy and respect. As with school uniform, I’d rather not trade such traditions for casualness.

This labelling is one of the features of school life that helps to inject a helpful formality, a demarcation between students and teachers, an in-built and necessary tone of respect. It is important and underpins our values.

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Liz Nice: We should relax about pupils using our first name

I remember a lot of my teachers’ names.

They always tended to live up to them in a funny sort of way.

Mr Fear was great, but a little scary.

Mrs Grinham, yes, she was indeed lovely and always smiling.

So, when I started teaching, it was pretty obvious that I couldn’t ever be known as Miss anything.

Who on earth would take notice of a teacher called Miss Nice?

I’ve been saddled with this name for 43 years and deliberately haven’t married because... well, I’m used to it now.

But I never liked my students calling me Miss – not because I thought it

sexist but just because it didn’t sound like me.

My name is Liz so that is what they always called me.

To my face, anyway.

And let’s be honest, nothing my students called me could be as harsh as the way our current government talks about teachers, fuelling the myth that all teachers are lazy, militant and spending their holidays living it up.

Sometimes, I wonder if Michael Gove has ever met any real teachers. But let’s not get into what I would like to call him…

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