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Potty mouths

By Alexander Deane - posted Wednesday, 21 September 2005

Children in a school in the UK have been given a "five 'f'’s" limit  in class. That is to say, they are allowed to say the "f" word five times in a lesson.

The teacher will keep a running count on the blackboard. Fewer than five "f"s means nothing is done. More than five means "the teacher will speak to the class at the end of the lesson".

This policy reveals the extent to which our children use abusive and or foul language - after all, there wouldn't be a need for the policy otherwise. But more importantly, it shows the loony liberal "it’s not your fault" no blame, no responsibility, no discipline nannyism that still dominates many of our schools.


"The reality is that the f-word is part of these young adults' everyday language," the Headmaster says. As if that's a morally neutral situation, as if it's not terribly wrong if true, as if it's not the job of the school to help combat that situation - and, in part, the fault of the school for generating an ethos in which this is the case. In the face of bad behaviour, rather than combating it, the school has abdicated its responsibility.

Of course, the scheme won't actually work. It implies that a certain amount of swearing is normal, is tolerable. It also makes swearing a game - "I will use up my allocation every lesson!"

You cannot expect children to respect "standards" like this. It shows that if pushed enough, the staff will, in effect, give in - and will thus encourage worse behaviour. Given the current approach, presumably the school’s response when the use of the "f" word exceeds these limits will be to raise the maximum every now and then.

Children are always going to misbehave occasionally.  But appeasing bad behaviour by sanctioning it doesn’t stop mild indiscipline: it just means that other, worse forms of behaviour will now constitute mild indiscipline instead.

It was pointed out to me whilst writing this piece that words such as "damn" and "bloody" were once very rude, and now are not. Is frequent use of the "f" word really so bad?

But the change in cultural currency of those words came over a considerable period of time, their position as very rude words taken up by others (in part, because of the decline of religious belief that made them significant.  However, (tell me if I’m naïve) the "f" word is still one of the rudest of words today. It is crude and, unlike those other words, a clear majority would agree that it’s rude to say it in public and, especially children shouldn't say it.


The school's desperate attempt at amnesty with pottymouths won't just fail to stem the tide of bad language. It will lead to worse behaviour, not just on the part of the consciously naughty who see the weakness of the establishment and go on to exploit it, but also on the part of children generally, who are affected by the absence of clear discipline.

Children need discipline in their lives. They need clear rules to live by. The scheme makes punishment and discipline seem arbitrary to those on which they are imposed. Smack your dog when he barks, and he gets the message. Let him bark five times and smack him on the sixth, and you just seem like a brute.

We deny children proper guidelines from which they can learn proper behaviour because a dilution of the special status of children has occurred in permissive society. We ask them to make choices they're not equipped to make, and should be made for them (carrots or fries?). In asking them to reach their own conclusions and come to their own solutions rather than teaching basics (times tables, grammar) by rote, we leave them stumbling in the dark and feel smug about ourselves because we’re more "enlightened" in our "teaching".

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About the Author

Alexander Deane is a Barrister. He read English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge and took a Masters degree in International Relations as a Rotary Scholar at Griffith University. He is a World Universities Debating Champion and is the author of The Great Abdication: Why Britain’s Decline is the Fault of the Middle Class, published by Imprint Academic. A former chief of staff to David Cameron MP in the UK, he also works for the Liberal Party in Australia.

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