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Mind-boggling mottos are hard to believe

On a spanking new school website where everyone is smiling, one head sums up the benefits of academy status very succinctly: it will "bring a more business-like culture to the learning environment". Absolutely. Let's face it, the learning environment has always been a bit local-authority lacklustre without the more incisive input of those private-sector sponsors.

To try to find confirmation of this I have been investigating academy websites. As it will soon be the start of a new academic year, I have looked in particular at the new mottos (or "mission statements") to be launched or relaunched on September Inset days. Surely the choice of words would be slicker and more professional than in those poor old analogue schools? Is this one area where academy schools would really taste the difference? Well, I have taken a look and - amazingly - their mottos are even more embarrassing than anything that has gone before.

The first one I came across was "Learn to live. Live to learn". How pleased the academy marketing team must have been with this - short, symmetrical and seemingly clever. It also has something of the healthy, oat-filled family-breakfast advert about it. But reflect on that message for a moment. What a dismal time humanity would have if it really were caught up in a nightmare where the argument for living was simply to learn and that the point of learning was purely to live.

No doubt someone else is equally proud of "Attitude determines altitude". Genius. In fact, academies seem just as obsessed with the height theme as their local-authority counterparts. We can almost sense a governing panel's quiet disappointment at one academy marketing expert's safe but hackneyed "The sky's the limit" and another's "Aim high". It's odd how mottos rarely suggest to children that you can still achieve great things in life without necessarily leaving familiar ground. Like working in a classroom, for instance.

Another academy aims "to maximise student performance in all it's forms (sic)" - well, maybe not in the form of GCSE English. Others have opted for the more alliterative "Proud of the past. Prepared for the future" (what was wrong with the simpler "Don't knock it"?) and the well-intended but ambiguous "To make our best better" (have the gifted and talented fallen ill there?).

Punters are enticed with "Impossible is nothing" (a familiar saying turned on its head and rendered utterly meaningless) and the original but equally obscure "Dare to be wise". The alternative to such opacity appears to be to err on the side of simple: one new academy sells itself as "A Learning School". A unique selling point if ever there was.

I turned in desperation to the Church, to an academy with CofE sponsors, and found "Success beyond belief". In fact, it all seems beyond belief. If those business minds can make such a risible influence in the one area where they might have some expertise, how can we expect them to be of much use elsewhere in that "learning environment"?

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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