What’s in a name? These days, the answer is a great deal – when it comes to some of the names chosen by schools to designate buildings or houses.
Recent newspaper reports that Holy Trinity Church of England Primary School in Richmond was changing the names of houses bearing the names of Winston Churchill and J K Rowling resulted in the usual backlash about “cancel culture”. There was widespread scepticism of the claims that “the children across school have been keen to change the names of some of the school houses to be more diverse” and that “the change was entirely driven and led by our pupils . . . .”
The decisions taken should, of course, be respected although one hopes that the reasons for change were properly explained to the pupils (aged three to eleven). Removing Churchill’s name, in particular, has caused a significant backlash from the public and the school needs to explain their decision in order to build understanding of the issues involved.
“Why didn’t they choose to name their houses after some incorruptible sentient beings, such as plants?”
Teaching diversity is a challenging, yet vital part of education today and schools do have a moral responsibility to take a lead — as I am sure the headteacher Alison Bateman and the governors and Diocese of Southwark who were behind her decision, would agree.
What is less explicable is why so many schools chose the names of public figures in the first instance and continue to do so, rather than using the names of people who are connected to the school or of some incorruptible sentient beings, such as plants.
‘The views and relevance of leading public figures can be transitory, set in time and place.’
After all, putting aside the concerns raised about Churchill and JK Rowling, the views and relevance of leading public figures can be transitory, set in time and place. Safer by far to look elsewhere, to their founders and alumni, to their geography and their own history (bearing in mind any possible links to the slave trade).
Most public schools are traditionally more cautious: Harrow, which counts Churchill amongst its alumni, has a tradition of naming most of its boarding houses after their founding housemasters.
At Radley, they call their houses “socials”, labelling them simply A – L. At Sherborne, houses are named after previous headmasters or the buildings they inhabit; and at nearby Sherborne Girls, the names of several former headmistresses are commemorated.
Of other leading girls’ schools, Benenden has a mix of names, most from established local families whose land and buildings have become part of the school and tree names (Oak, Elm, Birch and Ash are always a safe bet).
Heathfield School uses the names of inspirational women: Austen, Somerville, De Valois and Seacole. In some of the other schools I have known, the houses were called red, green, yellow and blue (although I can see even these would draw comment today) and Aiden, Cuthbert, Oswald and Durham (clearly a good ecclesiastical institution). Greeks, Romans, Trojans and Normans are considered a safe bet too, reckoning they go too far back to cause outrage.
I can sense today that those schools with houses named after Raleigh or Cook, certain battles and historic events or particularly, with connections with slavery are feeling a little nervous.
But rather than being defensive, what is needed is a conversation and a re-examination about what the school stands for and the choices it made, and continues to make, in relation to its values and mission statement.
“I can sense today that those schools with houses named after Raleigh or Cook are feeling a little nervous.”
Attitudes and values change and there is nothing shameful about reappraising past decisions and rectifying them if needs be. We are all learning, and if there is a lesson for us, it is for the need to listen and to learn what to hold onto and what to change – for change we must.
Society is moving at a pace that is often bewildering to the older generation whose default position is too often blinkered or even reactionary instead of accommodating. Samantha Price headmistress of Benenden wrote last week:
“This so-called ‘woke’ generation are actually simply young people who care about things: about causes, about the planet, about people. It ultimately comes down to something very simple: being kind”
She cautions against the older generation dismissing the “energetic changes of this generation” in “derogatory tones and sighs”.
It is a point well made. Our children are growing up thinking differently about the world – and as adults, we should be thinking differently too.