No man is an island, whatever his name

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Primary school rolls are expected to fall by 15 per cent in the next decade, and the reason is down to us, says Ewan Aitken

I had an early onslaught of "senior moments" last week. I was talking to someone about an old friend, whom I have known for years but for reasons that I cannot explain, I could not remember his name. The more I tried, the more his name would not come.

Not only was this very embarrassing but, at 42 years of age, I am pushing my luck claiming a senior moment of any description. This is unlike the Dalai Lama who, when I heard him speak two weeks ago, said he knew he was getting old. He used to be able to remember his past life, but now he can no longer remember what happened last week.

Much of our identity lies in our name. A group I was in recently was discussing who named us, what our names mean and what we feel about others using our names - especially nicknames - when we have not given permission.

One group member called Robert said he disliked it when people assumed they could call him Bob, especially when they had only just met him. He said only his wife gets to call him Bob - and even then only on special occasions. That may have been too much information for us.

Sometimes, of course, we need to be pragmatic. When I lived in England, I hated being called Jock but the janitors at my place of work insisted on doing so. Given that, without their co-operation, my ability to do my job was much reduced, I just grimaced and got on with it.

Our name lies at the heart of who we understand we are. I have a constituent who was adopted. Although he regards himself as Scottish, his name reflects Afro-Caribbean origins. He discovered recently that the name his birth mother had given him, however, was about as Scottish as you could get. He said: "I could not relate to that name. I am not that person. If I had lived with that name, I would have been a different person."

Remembering other people's name is a keystone of any relationship. I have a ministerial friend who is not the world's greatest preacher, nor is he well-organised administratively. He constantly forgets where he is supposed to be and why.

But he is hugely popular not only with his parishioners but also with the whole community because, having met someone once, he will not forget their name. Not only that, he remembers to whom they are related and what has happened to them and their family. He is able, with that one gift, to really make people feel they matter.

Having confessed my own inability in the name recollection department, however, there are some names that I hope I will not be able to recall - in particular, some of the names thrown my way in our consultations on school amalgamations. The most recent was a comparison to Rudolf Hess that I found somewhat bizarre.

Most of them are not repeatable. Part of me accepts that such things are par for the course in public life. Asking people to consider a change as big as their school amalgamating on another site is difficult and one that inevitably brings stress and worry which can be articulated in angry insults. But it saddens me when these discussions do at times degenerate into name-calling because that allows the name callers to avoid the real issues.

Others don't throw personal names at me but they do lob the words "public-private partnership" at me as some kind of pejorative term. The suggestion is that somehow the needs of developers and not those of pupils, parents and staff are driving amalgamations.

But school amalgamations have nothing to do with funding mechanisms. In fact, ours are not connected to public-private partnerships at all. They are driven by another PPP acronym: projected pupil populations. In other words, we are not breeding in large enough numbers. Too many people, myself included, are having children later and in smaller numbers.

Others are choosing not to have children at all. The consequence of those choices is that the primary population is estimated to drop by 15 per cent in the next 10 years or so. We must plan for that.

What appear to us to be our own personal choices about the shape and size of our families actually affect others quite significantly. John Donne, the 17th-century metaphysical poet, was right when he said "no man is an island, entire of itself", even when people choose to have their children.

If we want to avoid amalgamating schools, we don't need a debate about funding mechanisms or one filled with name-calling. We just need more children whose names we can add to the school rolls.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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