At my secondary school, our houses were named after famous Elizabethan explorers: Drake, Raleigh, Frobisher and Grenville. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why all four of our house names celebrated white men, when society – and my school – was 50 per cent female.
These days, we like to think that we are far more aware of the impact on children of subtle, and not so subtle, messages about gender and race. But in schools, something as simple as changing house names to reflect a more diverse society seems to have been missed by many.
One of our key roles as educators is to model those attitudes that we want to see in our children. What we hold up as “important”, they will see as such. At a time when we are actively trying to encourage more women into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects (and, indeed, more men into subjects such as childcare), it is very important for us to think about the messages we send through the figures that we promote.
One of the ways that a school demonstrates its view on the importance of someone is to use their name as a house name. What do your house names say about your school’s ethos, and the things that you value?
A straw poll on Twitter revealed that while many schools have a balance of gender and ethnicity in their house names, some have still not addressed this as a potential issue. In one case, a teacher reported that at the girls’ school where she teaches, all four houses are named after men.
Another said that her school uses the names of four Roman emperors; while a further respondent noted that her school celebrates five male, white historical figures, including Wren and Raleigh. A teacher in Australia said that her school chooses to use the names of the people who discovered that country, along with its first governor – all male, all white.
Women who make history
In the instances where schools had taken steps to address the idea of diversity and balance in house names, there was a healthy mix of gender and ethnicity.
Some schools had neatly side-stepped the issue completely by naming their houses after places, trees or mythical creatures (“Unicorn” or “Phoenix” house, anyone?). In line with a focus on sports and healthy lifestyles, and – in many cases – inspired by the recent London Olympic Games, a number of schools had chosen to use the names of sporting heroes for their houses. Runner Mo Farah, heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and tennis player Andy Murray all made an appearance.
In choosing or changing house names, we should think not only about messages around diversity and equality, but also about highlighting women as important figures in fields where they are under-represented.
One teacher reported that her school uses the name of a female architect (Zaha Hadid), another said that hers pays tribute to a female physicist (Marie Curie). A useful idea is to hold focus days, so that pupils can study and explore the lives of the people concerned.
House names offer schools a great chance to combine learning about history, politics and culture with learning about diversity, equality and opportunity. Take the time to think about your house names, and you can use them to make an important statement about your ethos and beliefs. Because even though, as Shakespeare wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, your house names still say an awful lot about you.
Sue Cowley is an author and speaker on education, as well as a teacher trainer @Sue_Cowley
We can all be house proud if we change the old names