'Kayleigh, Tyler... this could be hell'

20th April 2007 at 01:00
What does your name say about you? Susan Young reports on teachers'

perceptions of pupils with 'chav' names and reminds us that a name is for life, not just for fashion

Do you harbour dark thoughts about children called Jordan and Wayne? Does the presence of a Chantelle or a Troy in your class make you tread a little more carefully in the first weeks of the school year? And did you take advice from colleagues on the naming of your own offspring, to avoid accidentally tagging them as potential children from hell? You must be a teacher.

Mention pupils' names on The TES online staffroom (www.tes.co.uk) and the discussion will rage for weeks, with battle lines drawn between those who cheerfully admit they believe some names signal potentially troublesome children, and those who accuse them of exhibiting middle-class prejudice against working-class families.

Research from the United States suggests both sides might be right, and that there may be consequences for children whose parents follow the fashion for celebrity-inspired or one-off baby names. Teachers may be unwittingly marking children down if they are unfortunate enough to have a name associated with classes anywhere below the middle.

"Parents need to be aware of the implications of the names they select for their children. Many, for a variety of reasons - they think they are clever, creative or funny - choose names that create lifelong problems for their children," says Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, who has spent years researching how people react to different names.

Consciously or not, teachers make assumptions about pupils on the basis of their first names, and children can be disadvantaged as a result, as David Figlio, an American economics professor, found out when he wondered if the increasing trend for black children to be given racially distinct names might be harmful, and analysed records of more than 55,000 children in Florida to find out.

He discovered that siblings called, say, Rayne and Si'Ani, who scored equally in tests, were unlikely to be treated equally by their teachers.

Si'Ani was far less likely to be put on a gifted and talented programme than the more conventionally named sibling, particularly if the child was the eldest or a boy. Professor Figlio believes the teachers were not being racist, but were making assumptions that pupils with certain, often unusual, names came from poor families who might not support schoolwork.

He says: "These results are consistent with the notion that teachers and school administrators may subconsciously expect less of students with names associated with low socio-economic status or names that are disproportionately given to black children. These expectations may possibly become self-fulfilling prophecies."

Are British teachers making similar assumptions? "When teachers on your website talk about a particular name being 'chav', that says a lot about what my paper is about - social class and the fact that teachers seem to respond negatively to names counted as lower class," says Professor Figlio, one of several economists who have become interested in the effects of names.

"People draw conclusions all the time on the basis of limited information.

Whenever you meet anybody, you look for facial cues, and how they dress and behave. Teachers do similar things, probably unwittingly and not explicitly.

"Perhaps teachers are particularly sensitive to names because they may interact with hundreds of children over the course of a couple of years and will end up drawing certain conclusions that might or might not be fair. I believe that teachers are doing this completely unaware that they may have different expectations on the basis of a name."

So what do British teachers think? Valerie Stevenson, who has taught for 29 years, says: "We all have names we wouldn't call our own kids, as we recall nasty little twerps with that name in years gone by.

"However, that is as far as it goes. I would be looking at a child called Dwayne, Wayne, TJ, PJ, Thierry or whatever, wondering what sort of parents they must have. I would be expecting lack of awareness of homework, holidays in term time maybe, that sort of thing. I would be hoping to be proved wrong. I would be feeling sorry for the child more. They would probably have lovely expensive trainers and no school shoes - in my opinion."

Might those feelings translate into unconscious discrimination?

No, says Valerie. "I think we catch ourselves at this and are, if anything, more careful with that child."

But class assumptions are only part of the story. Psych-ologists talk about how "concept of self" is affected - how our names become part of ourselves, and we may behave according to the expectations others have of us. In this way, unusual names may create self-fulfilling prophecies by perhaps suggesting that the child is odd or unwanted, or exposing them to teasing.

Valerie says: "In my lifetime, I've taught a Che, a Royal, a Gronyer, a Wendy House and a Russell Sprout. This is child abuse, pure and simple.

Were the parents thick, cruel, thoughtless or trying to toughen the child up?"

Professor Mehrabian started researching names as an extension of his main interest, non-verbal communication, and wrote up his research findings as a book, Baby name report card: Beneficial and harmful baby names. This is aimed at parents-to-be, urging them to choose names that help convey the impression they would like their children to give to others.

It says: "Regal names like Katherine, James or Alexander convey images of success; in contrast, names like Fifi, Didi, Brandy or Trixie evoke images of a hat check girl or cocktail waitress. I have encountered names such as Fayle, Farm or LaTrina for girls and others, such as Cobra, Jane and Swindle for boys. These are extreme examples. Such names make highly undesirable impressions that are equivalent in intensity to the effects of dressing a boy in girls' clothing or dying a child's hair blue or pink."

Professor Mehrabian says a desirable name is no guarantee of success or failure, but can provide an extra statistical advantage. "Quite often, name and gender information is all we have to go on about another person."

So, do parents think carefully enough about what other people will make of their child's name, into adulthood, when naming them? "Absolutely not," he says. But teachers do.

Beatrice Simons, an infant teacher in Steven-age, is not planning to have children yet, but, when she does, she has thought about names. "It's going to be extremely difficult to name my own children. I used to like the name Lewis, for instance, but now there are too many memories associated with it. And I would avoid Josh. I'm forever thinking about names and we are always talking about it in the staffroom."

ARE YOU POPULAR?

The five most popular boys' names for 2006 were Jack, Thomas, Joshua, Oliver and Harry.

Olivia, Grace, Jessica, Ruby and Emily top the girls' chart.

Source: The Office for National Statistics

GRADE YOUR NAME

Pupils with middle-class names such as Katharine and Duncan are up to eight times more likely to get five good GCSEs than Waynes and Dwaines, according to an unpublished survey.

The 22 top-achieving names are all girls. The top five are: Katharine, Madeleine, Bryony, Philippa and Eleanor.

The survey assessed 500,000 GCSE results.

SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECIES

The Ghanaian Ashanti believe that Monday-born boys will be gentle, but Wednesday-borns aggressive. Juvenile court records agree, but a researcher noted that Ashanti are named after the day of their birth, and everyone expects Wednesday's children to be bad boys. So they are.

URBAN MYTHS?

A 15th baby born to a poor American country family was, the parents thought, named by the hospital via a wrist label. Pronounced Fe-ma-lee; spelled Female.

A woman called an American radio show, most upset about her new niece's name. The baby's name was pronounced Shu-TEED; spelled Shithead.

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