In search of the perfect school motto

Walter Humes

I'M not sure that anyone takes mottos very seriously these days but most Scottish secondary schools continue to have one. A Guide to Schools, published earlier this year by the Scotsman, included mottos in its comparative data and, although not all headteachers responded to the request for information, enough did to enable some conclusions to be drawn.

Perhaps the most striking feature is that the puritanical tradition is alive and well. Examples include "Nothing without hard work", "Virtue alone is nobility", "Strive against adversity" and "Persevere" - all in various formulations. Often these are in Latin: it would be interesting to know how many members of staff (never mind pupils) would be comfortable if faced with the original. It is encouraging to see that a number of schools, mainly but not exclusively in the West Highlands, have Gaelic mottos and French features in at least one school (Monifieth High - "Fais ce que dois").

There is a notable absence of mottos celebrating the joy of learning or the exuberance of youth. In the dominant Scottish tradition, happiness is always suspect and enjoyment evidence of sin. One or two make an effort to be a bit more upbeat. Grange Academy urges pupils to "Be in good spirit" while the motto of Alva Academy is "Keen in sport and study". But these positive notes are drowned out amid the general chorus of dour earnestness.

What is apparent, however, is that some schools have tried to update their mottos to bring them into line with current priorities. Thus we have "Committed to excellence" and "Quality education for all" which have all the hallmarks of having been penned in the Scottish Executive. I wonder how they will sound in 10 years' time when, hopefully, the discourse has moved on. "Be all you can be" is also popular, though in one version ("Do your best") the effect is decidedly jaded and resigned.

It is also evident that favoured mottos are much more likely to encourage competitive individualism than social solidarity. There are certainly some of the latter ("United in effort", "Working together to improve", "Caring for all", "Mutual respect") but they are very much in the minority.

Stewarton Academy's "Be courteous" has a delightful old-world charm about it.

Given the capacity of most adolescents to see ribaldry in almost anything, some mottos would appear ill-chosen. "Aim higher", which a number of schools have adopted in various forms, might be seen to encourage lively competition in the boys' toilets.

The satirical climate of our times could encourage the production of anti-mottos, expressive of a cynical take on the experience of schools.

"Aye, that'll be right" captures something of the Scottish psyche and "Gonnae no' do that" would be equally appealing to staff and pupils.

However, I am sure pupils themselves could come up with much sharper examples.

If I were asked to draw up a list of criteria for good school mottos, I would suggest the following. Platitudes and cliches should be avoided, especially if they come with political endorsement. If possible, mottos should have some local significance but should also invoke fundamental principles (such as freedom, justice and truth). In contrast to the puritanical tradition, they should be optimistic, cheerful and encouraging, and hold out the possibility of individual and social fulfilment. And while the immediate message should be clear and accessible to all, mottos which have more than one layer of meaning and can be subject to subtle interpretations are to be preferred.

It's quite a tall order. Perhaps the editor would like to offer a prize for the best suggestion?

Walter Humes is professor of education and head of educational studies at Strathclyde University.

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Walter Humes

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