Eeh, by gum - look what Ofsted’s done

NORTHERN PRIDE JB Priestley
NORTHERN PRIDE JB Priestley
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In Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly happen... but there’s been a storm of protest here up North over a teacher being instructed by an Ofsted inspector to sound less northern.

Lancastrians have been quick to leap to the defence of the great northern accent, with all its nuances, on Lancashire Day.

Regional accents have become a big talking point since an Ofsted inspector took a Cumbrian teacher - working in Berkshire - to task over her accent.

The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) claims the inspector made it a “key objective” for the member of staff to “sound more southern” as part of her personal development as a teacher.

Paul Watkins, from the NASUWT, commented: “I could initially be seen as humorous, but the more you talk about it, the more annoyed and outraged you become. It is the most extreme form of discrimination and bullying in a country where we are supposed to be celebrating diversity.”

The staff member is said to have “taken it to heart.”

Rightly so says retired English teacher Liz Taylor, of Thornton, who says she hasn’t hadn’t heard anything as ridiculous for years.

“When I worked in Oxfordshire other teachers used to tell me I spoke broad Lancashire,” says Liz who adds: “I was actually born in Yorkshire - in Walkley, Sheffield. I think I modulated my accent around the governors but that was it. The students used to mimic me but loved my accent and understood it. I see no reason why any regional accent - Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria - should be a hindrance educationally. Just look at the success of Educating Yorkshire on TV.

“This is the real world, not My Fair Lady land.”

It’s a reference to the “in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire hurricanes hardly happen” speech exercises in which Professor Henry Higgins repeatedly drilled Eliza Doolittle to lose her Cockney accent.

Time was when aspiring actors and actresses were told to lose their accents at posh drama schools in the south. That changed with a revival of regionalism in the seventies - much of it pioneered in the North by the likes of Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre and later Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Local actress Charlotte Dawson had two role models for her own accent - her late dad Les, as Lancashire as they come, and mum Tracy, a Liverpudlian.

“Dad never lost his accent and it was a big part of his humour and who he was, just as Peter Kay’s accent is,” says Charlotte. “My mum’s accent tends to come out more when she gets excited - or angry!

“I like my Lancashire accent. I’m proud of it. It’s who I am. But it’s quite husky and some of my southern friends say I sound like a man! God, I’d hate to lose my accent or be ordered to lose it for my job. I’d refuse. It would be like losing myself. I think Lancashire accents sound friendlier, more approachable, somehow.”

In fact Charlotte has just landed the role as Tybalt in an update of Shakespeare’s classic tale of love and tragedy Romeo and Juliet next summer. “That’s the big challenge - a woman taking on a role traditionally played by men,” she adds. “I don’t think accents come into it. It’s just going to be a challenge doing Shakespeare!”

So what’s the verdict elsewhere? Celebrated Northerner John Siddique, Blackpool’s former poet in residence and WordPool star, a Royal Literary Fund Fellow who has been described as “a stellar British poet” by The Spectator, responds: “I love the Lancashire accent. Check Jenna Louise Coleman (the Blackpool-born Dr Who star). People like my poetry voice on radio. I think some still assume northerners are thick. Ofsted should pull its head out.”

Coun Peter Gibson, leader of Wyre Council, named council of the month by Local Government minister Brenda Lewis, remains an unashamed scouser. “Ofsted is living in another century. It’s quite ridiculous. I think they’re totally out of touch. I moved here in 1973 when the company I worked for moved me here - and I’ve never lost my Liverpool accent. It’s never been an issue. I lived in Berkshire myself for a year and in London too and my experience was just the opposite. Normal people welcome you. They look on northerners as friendly people, and we are in truth. When you’re in a neighbourhood where hardly anyone speaks and some northerner arrives and starts chatting it breaks the ice. I don’t see it as any disadvantage, personally, professionally, politically, to have a northern accent. I’d argue it’s the other way, totally.”

Coun Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, agrees. “The subject matter reminds me of a joke. An elderly, and deeply religious, lady from Blackburn (my home town) dies. Her husband instructs th’stonemason to engrave a stone with the words ‘She was Thine’. On inspecting the stone at the cemetery some weeks later, he realises it says ‘She was Thin’. He calls the stonemason, as says ‘Henry, tha’s missed the E of t’wife’s headstone!’ - to which the stonemason apologises, and agrees to immediately correct the mistake. The following week, the widower visits the grave, to see that the stone now reads....’Eeh She was Thin’.

“Joking apart, I have always been deeply proud of my fairly thick East Lancashire accent. Not, frankly that I could do much about it if I wanted to change it. Just occasionally I hear myself on the radio (most notably when I was on Radio 4’s Today programme - not somewhere where you hear a lot of Blackburn accents) and note that I do sound particularly northern - but it is all part of life’s rich tapestry, which should be celebrated, not damped down.”

Sheila Dibnah, widow (and voicealike!) of one of the greatest northerners of all time, Fred Dibnah, admits: “Years ago I always felt I had a ruddy great gobful of whitworth nuts with my thick Boltonian accent. But over the years, I’ve come to love it. Certainly, with what I do nowadays (promoting Fred’s legacy, public speaking) it’s become something of an asset! Personally, I think if you are ‘just yourself’ around others and are genuine they will accept you. It’s down to how you present the whole package, not just how you speak.”