What’s in a (school) name?

The name of a school can tell people a lot about what happens inside. But secondary school names have been changing with unprecedented speed over the last ten years, first with a trend to put the specialism in the title (“Millfield Science and Performing Arts College”), often under pressure from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT). Now ‘schools’ are becoming ‘academies’, either by choice or diktat. Others have changed ‘school’ to ‘college’. Some have put ‘The’ at the front. The school name game is a competitive sport!

Comprehensive schools were never bog-standard, but they were mostly called ‘comprehensive’ in the name on the gate. For some years, I have observed in the attendance list at the annual conference of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) very few school leaders with ’comprehensive’ on their delegate badge.

At the 2013 annual conference, the 1150 people attending included 950 from schools, mostly in England, but with a sprinkling from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and further afield.

Of those 950, just 5 were senior leaders of schools with ‘comprehensive’ in their title, in spite of all-ability secondary schools being the large majority.

OK, so the words on the tin don’t necessarily have to describe the contents – who would guess that Pledge is furniture polish? And lots of schools try to encapsulate something of their ethos in their title:

70 of these 950 schools (7.5 per cent) included the faith designation in their title and many more gave a strong hint in that direction without actually stating the religious affiliation – Bennett Memorial Diocesan School or St Peter’s School, for example. Some take this description further, squeezing more information about the school into the name – St Catherine’s School for Girls or Cardinal Newman Catholic School and Community College, for example.

120 schools of the 950 (12.5 per cent) use the word ‘academy’ in their title, an ancient and honourable description of a state school in Scotland, but a much newer title for such a large number in England.

90 schools (9.5 per cent) use the word ‘community’, expressing publicly the idea of the school serving its community, although parental choice now means that some schools barely know what community they serve, so diverse and distant have their catchment areas become.

Some school call themselves a ‘Community College’, or just a ‘College’.

The most popular designation for a secondary school now (190 out of 950 – 20 per cent) is ‘High School’, which says nothing about the nature of the school or its ethos – Oakfield High School, Woodside High School – but often includes its location – Wetherby High School, Uxbridge High School.

In spite of the end of the specialist schools funding, 60 schools (6 per cent) have their specialisms sufficiently embedded in their ethos to have retained it in their title, with Sports College the most popular, followed by Technology College, Engineering College, Arts College and Languages College, in that order, with a single Maths and Computing College trailing in this category among the ASCL conference attendees.

It is this group of schools that, combined with their faith designation, provide the contenders for the longest school name, especially where more than one saint is included – Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Engineering College (since when was engineering a peaceful activity, you may ask), Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Sports College, Brownedge St Mary’s RC High School and Sports College, which, like several other schools, includes both ‘school’ and ‘college’ in its title. Ashington Community High School and Sports College scores in at least three of our categories.

Another bid for distinction comes from the schools that include ‘the’ at the front of their title – The Holy Cross School, The Charter School.

The shortest school name represented at the ASCL conference was Erith School – the same number of letters as Eton College. Who needs a long name?

Add to this a Village College or two, a Learning Village, a Senior School and a Studio School and the diversity of English secondary school names is almost complete.

405 out of 950 (43 per cent), however, eschew any of these additions to their name and remain just ‘School’ – Priory School, Sydney Russell School, Bohunt School, for example.

I have always been a strong supporter of the comprehensive principle, believing that good schools have ‘diversity within’. So the agenda of successive governments to create ‘diversity between’ schools, seemingly without recognising the diversity that exists anyway between schools of similar type run by different people in different communities, creates unnecessary divisions and, this being England, diversity is always turned into hierarchy.

Diversity of schools has become entropy of names. Is there a hierarchy there too?

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