Consider how you treat wee Jimmy

6th July 2007 at 01:00
The answer to Shakespeare's question "What's in a name?" seems to be: quite a lot, actually. New research has discovered that school children's first names can have a bearing on how well they do in exams.

The study, published in the Journal of Human Resources, found that teenagers with "lower-status" names did less well than their siblings with more traditional names. But it is not because there is something about the name itself that defines the child as "academic" or "non-academic", but how the child's teacher responds to that name.

Teachers of children whose names sound "neddy" with an unusual spelling, unnecessary punctuation or who are named after celebrities have lower expectations of those children than ones with middle-class names. As a result, the first group don't do as well in exams. School uniforms may remove outward signs of inequality, but it seems names carry enough baggage to cause teachers to discriminate subconsciously.

Now, it could be that teachers have higher expectations of children with middle class-sounding names based on experience, but I am sure class bias is also involved. After all, most teachers are from middle-class backgrounds. Name prejudice could fail hard-working intelligent kids with the "wrong" names because their teacher devotes his time to that nice girl Hannah sitting in the front row. In reality, teaching in comprehensive schools in the west of Scotland, you find most of the kids have "lower-class" names and you can hardly be prejudiced against them all, can you?

It is only really in the past few decades that parents have started to exert their own personalities by choosing unusual names for their children. It is ironic that having spent a fortune buying a house in a good catchment area, they may have stymied their children's chances from the start by calling him after their favourite singer.

And name prejudice is unlikely to be restricted just to teachers in the UK. In Venezuela, a lot of kids are called Usnavy, after the American fleet, and there is one unfortunate called Brian Back Street Boy Rodriguez. In China, there is a kid whose parents wanted a successful Western-sounding name, so called him Ikea.

In 20 years' time, however, Darren, J.T. and Britney might be teaching and have their own prejudices against the uninspired names of "boring" middle class children.

Gordon Cairns teaches in Glasgow

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