A few weeks ago I was enjoying a post-dinner chat with a primary head who was telling me about her son. In his first year at a popular and prestigious secondary school, he had settled down and was doing well, she said, "but he found it difficult to get used to being called by his surname". I was taken aback to discover that there are schools which perpetuate a tradition which I thought had died out.
When I first taught in secondary schools, 35 years ago, it was still common to call boys "Smith'' or "Jones'', but there were teachers who would not do it, and many occasions when it just seemed inappropriate. The trouble is that to call a boy by his surname today (no school, to my knowledge, ever does it to girls) is to ignore the way the social context has changed.
Once upon a time - say before about 1960 - men of the upper middle classes and the aristocracy habitually called each other by their unadorned surnames. To do so, in fact, was a mark of respect. If the man you met was a friend, you said "Good morning, Smith''. To have called him either "John'' or "Mr Smith'', far from implying greater intimacy would actually have added social distance. "John'' would have been an office boy; "Mr Smith'' a chief clerk.
Thus, in the common rooms of public schools, the masters, following accepted practice, called each other, even close friends, by their surnames. To address their pupils in the same way, far from being demeaning, implied respect and recognition of status. (Many upper class public school boys, in fact, would have understood that by calling their teachers "Mr'' they were, very subtly, not only according respect but also allocating them to a lower social category.) Surname-calling presumably moved into state secondaries because public schools were the model for everything from house systems to team sports. Now, thankfully, the whole complicated mechanism by which people placed themselves and others in terms of social class has, if not gone, at least been eroded. So much so that for a teacher now to address a boy as "Smith'' has lost all its positive connotations and sounds instead like a permanent reprimand. It has become an indefensible practice.
This leads to the question of what teachers should call heads, and what pupils should call teachers. At one time, all heads were addressed by their colleagues by surname and title ("Mrs Smith"), and the heads reciprocated in kind. Gradually, though, informality crept in (blame Plowden!) and heads started to call their teachers by their first names. The teachers, though, were slow to respond, so you had such exchanges as "Good morning, Mrs Smith'', "Good morning, Wendy''. A colleague of mine from that time insisted he had the right to return whatever form of address was used to him, and he began calling his head by her first name. She, needless to say, lacked the courage and conviction to stop him doing it.
This practice now seems established in staffrooms across the land. So, if my friend's principle holds good for heads and teachers, should it not work for teachers and pupils? By what right does a teacher call a pupil "John'' and expect the response "Mr", or even "Sir"? Why should a child who calls all the non-parental adults in his or her life by their first names be expected to do something different in school?
I met a registered inspector the other day who said that because in schools he wears a name badge bearing his full name with no "Mr'' attached, primary children address him as "Martin''. ("Well, how did that go, Martin?'' he was asked by a child at the end of one lesson.) There is, he went on, no evidence that being thus addressed is harmful to the relationship. In fact, it would take a particularly perverse sort of reasoning to deduce that any good pupil-teacher relationship could be damaged by allowing children to return the form of address which was being used to them.
The trouble is that in the Sixties and Seventies schools which claimed to be progressive were generally hallmarked by their policy of allowing children to use teachers' first names, and this was the feature always picked up by the critical press. But surely a good school, child-centred in the best sense, would allow its pupils to move naturally from "Mrs Jackson'' to "Wendy'' as the relationship developed. At any one time some pupils would be using "Wendy'', others would not.
That, after all, is how it is in the real world.