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Whatever happened to surnames?

Rapid fashion changes in children's names often provide harmless amusement for teachers as they speculate on the responsible celebrity or which parent provided the registrar with the wrong spelling.

They can play the prediction game too. With the release of the remake of The Omen, due on 06.06.06, place your bets on the likelihood of a revival of Damien. Or how close are we to a child's name as product placement backed by a fat sponsorship fee? We eagerly await news of the first Persil or Irn-Bru turning up in class.

But there are disappointments also, especially the naming of Brooklyn Beckham after the place of his conception which, as far as I know, has failed to populate our infant classes with children who answer to East Kilbride or Stranraer.

However, all the fun to be had with first names has diverted attention from the case of the disappearing surname. It may have been around for more than a millennium, but recently the surname has been experiencing a sharp downturn in use.

Developed for accurate identification within a growing population, by the time of my youth surnames had become complicated and laden with social subtleties. When applied to enlisted soldiers, servants and by some teachers to school pupils, the surname was a means of control by establishing inferiority.

At the other end of the scale, among males of the stiff upper lip tendency, the mutual addressing by surnames showed friendly regard for one another - think of Holmes and Watson - and probably arose from a public school education.

In my own, more normal world of childhood, adults' first names were a mystery and we knew them only by their surnames attached to a respectful Mr, Mrs or Miss. The message was that first names were for children only and therefore childish, and that being addressed as Mr along with your surname was a sign of attaining adulthood.

Not any more, with the demise of deference in our society and our concern with "equality" and "individuality". Now the forename is the badge of informality and the surname is falling into disuse. So call centre staff, one third of my age, call me Brian and BBC3 can begin its news headlines with "good evening, my name is James".

Our education authority tried a new internal phone directory with staff names in alphabetical order . . . by first name. It was unworkable, but someone thought it was a good idea. Tesco tries the same trick on its music download website. No point in searching for Beethoven under B: he's become L for Ludwig.

Teachers do this to me too. In a cosy classroom, first names rule but holding a discussion with a teacher on that basis is disorientating. Not only are there five Calums in her class but there are others in the school.

Without a surname the brain reels, trying to make sense of the conversation and, in my case, ups the confusion further. No wonder it concerns secondary schools that children arrive with little idea of surnames, their own or anyone else's.

Of course, all these examples are annoyances sent to give me something to moan about, but in school the disappearing surname can bring danger, especially from an unwitting combination of school staff and carers.

The phone call from "Kevin's mum" about a forgotten appointment saying, "tell him to meet me at the bus stop at 11.30", resulted in another Kevin sent out of school, puzzled about the bus stop instruction. Or the new social worker told to collect Sophie early from school, meant the wrong Sophie whisked off in a car and the original Sophie abandoned.

There is much to be said for relaxed attitudes, but surnames are not a needless formality. They help our understanding and identification of people and may even save lives. It's time for schools to arrest recent trends and return the surname to use by children and staff.

Brian Toner is a former primary headteacher.

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