The life of Riley
Who would you rather teach: Sophie or Stacey? Daniel or Danyill? Adi Bloom speaks to teachers and academics who believe that assumptions based on a student’s name can have a profound effect on their identity and attainment
When Cat Shepherd’s eldest daughter was born, she named the baby Hannah. Presumably, she liked the name. But there was a bit more to it than that.
“The reason she’s called that is because every Hannah I’ve ever taught is quiet, conscientious and clever,” Shepherd says. “Your traditional names - the Hannahs and Catherines and Sarahs of this world - they’re life’s future leaders.”
Shepherd, head of English at Aldersley High School in Wolverhampton, England, called her second child Maisie. “Two-syllable girls’ names that end in an ‘ee’ - Sophie, Amy, Maisie - you just imagine them to be bright and bubbly,” she says. “So when you meet a Sophie who’s maudlin and depressed, it comes as a bit of a shock.”
Teachers, whether or not they admit it to themselves, tend to make assumptions about students based on their names. This is hardly surprising: faced with 30 unknown children at the start of the year, it is only natural to seize on any available piece of information and look for indicators of personality.
“Clearly all of us use stereotypes about all sorts of things,” says James Bruning, professor of psychology at Ohio University in the US. “And names are one of those things. It’s a first impression. If you only have a name as a guide then of course you make assumptions based on that.”
Many of these assumptions are so commonly repeated that they have taken on a mythology of their own: people who have never actually taught a Chantal or a Joshua, for example, will be able to recite a litany of crimes of which Chantals and Joshuas across the ages have been guilty.
Bruning has researched the prejudices that are often attached to names, in the classroom and beyond. “If I were to ask you which of these two children would be better in maths or science, Wa Wei Lee or Kahine Jefferson, people would pick the Chinese name, because it’s - quote, unquote - ‘known’ that Far Eastern children are better at maths,” he says. “That’s just the expectation.”
Similarly, he adds, if he were to draw two stick men, label one Percival and the other Bud, and then ask a group of people which one they would expect to run faster, the universal choice would be Bud. By contrast, if he asked which would be the higher achiever, people would point to Percival.
Of course, there are pages’ worth of cultural assumptions here, condensed into two or three syllables. But Bruning emphasises the importance of remembering the role of parents in naming children. “Take a step back,” he says. “Which of those two sets of parents do you think would be more inclined to expect their child to be good at sport or to study hard: the ones who call their child Bud or the ones who call their child Percival? Always, you have to remember that names are given by parents, and parents probably have some expectations of their child.”
And names have served as social signifiers for centuries. Anyone who has ever watched a Victorian costume drama, for example, knows that Elsie is the chamber maid and Constance the mistress of the house.
A touch of class
“There are certainly forenames that still betoken cultural capital,” says Mick Connell, who taught English and drama in the North of England for 13 years. While teaching at a sixth-form college in Doncaster, he heard several students refer to classmates as being “one of the Lauras”.
“It was a dismissive name for middle-class girls,” Connell says. “They just dismissed them all as ‘the Lauras’.” The nickname, he suspects, came from Laura Ashley, the clothing and decor company beloved of the middle classes. “They’d say, ‘She’s one of the Lauras now.’ It meant that she’d gone off with the cultural-capital crowd.”
Connell suggests that the class-based name divide is fairly clear-cut. The middle classes tend to opt for conventional, well-established names, whereas parents from less-advantaged backgrounds are more open to new or unusual names.
The Times births pages, for example, which largely celebrate the progeny of those at the higher end of the social spectrum, are unlikely to feature many Beyoncés or Emelis. Meanwhile, laughing at misspelled or creatively spelled names - Jayzon or Klowee - remains an acceptable way to mock those less educated than ourselves.
A name, therefore, takes on additional meaning. “Kayleegh” may derive from the Gaelic for “slender and fair”, but today it also means “parents didn’t go to university; doesn’t have many books at home; probably not that conscientious in the classroom”.
Connell, however, who trains English teachers at the University of Sheffield, was recently at a lecture where the presenter referred to “the brightest girl in the class, Destiny”. “There was a clear ripple through the group,” Connell says. “How can the brightest girl be called Destiny? There would have been no reaction if she’d been called Laura.
“These are young teachers, trainee teachers. Most come through selective schooling [and the] Russell Group [of elite] universities. And hearing that the brightest girl is called Destiny just sent this little shiver of shock through them.”
Enter David Figlio, professor of economics at Northwestern University, near Chicago in the US. Figlio has written extensively on the consequences of high teacher expectations. Unsurprisingly, students whose teachers expect good results from them tend to perform better than those students whose teachers expect them to fail.
“That led me to think about why teachers might have higher expectations for some kids than for others,” he says. “They’re only human and they look for cues. How are children dressed? How are they performing in class? What’s an indicator of the kind of home support that kids might be getting?
“Over and over again, teachers hinted at the fact that they draw inferences about kids’ backgrounds from things like their names. From the sound and spelling of a name, you can predict that the child’s mother probably dropped out of school or was a university graduate and everything in between. Mums who go to university tend to give their kids different names from mums who drop out of secondary school.”
So Figlio decided to ask the question first posed by Shakespeare’s Juliet: what’s in a name? Using a computer program and records of 2 million births in Florida, he established clear social patterns, determining which names tended to be given by poorly educated parents and which by university graduates. He then looked for families where pairs of brothers or sisters had been given names from either end of this nominative hierarchy: brothers Haydon and William, for example.
The fact that the children were siblings was vital. “If you compare children from different families, it could be everything to do with the mother’s educational level and nothing to do with the name,” he says. “People who come from the same families have the same educational background.”
What he found was that, whatever Juliet might have believed, that which we call a Rose in fact smells sweeter - or at least performs better in school - than that which we call Riana or Riley. The sibling with a high-status name, such as William, was more likely to score highly in end-of-year tests than his brother, Haydon. This gap increased year by year, so that William was significantly more likely to belong to the school’s gifted and talented programme than Haydon. Meanwhile, Haydon was more likely than William to need remedial lessons.
Some social conservatives have used this study to argue for restrictions on the types of names parents are allowed to give their children. But Figlio believes this misses the point. “Names are meaningful for parents,” he says. “More important for us as a society is to recognise that we may be prejudging people on the basis of names.
“It helps to point out the power of societal reflections, of how members of society perceive us. Over time, if teachers expect less of a child, it sometimes comes true.”
Girls or boys?
Cat Shepherd has recognised this potential for prejudice. “If I come across a Kayleegh, I think, oh, you poor bugger,” she says. “Because she’s going to be branded as - I don’t like to say it - chavvy. So I’d almost say I go the other way. But then you’re either prejudiced against more unconventional names or you’re bestowing sympathy that’s not always needed. Because I’m sure the kids don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh, no. My name’s this or my name’s that.’”
The problems, however, will not end on the day that all Kayleeghs collectively decide to change their names and the register becomes a middle-class litany of Kates and Isobels. Figlio conducted additional research, in which he looked at the effects of giving boys names that are often associated with girls: Ashley, for example, or Jordan.
He found that, when these boys began middle school - equivalent to the beginning of secondary school in Britain - they became extremely disruptive. This disruption extended to the entire class, which would suffer behaviourally and academically.
“Throughout primary school, girls and boys look and act the same,” he says. “Then, once they hit age 11, they’re mixing with a brand new set of classmates - people who haven’t known them since age 5. They’re also becoming aware of their own sexuality around that time.
“My theory is that that degree of self-awareness and real anxiety around their own identity is perhaps to blame for the level of disruption. And, when they become more disruptive in the classroom, that reduces the degree to which teachers are able to provide for the class.”
Figlio says that these boys’ misbehaviour is particularly pronounced when there is a girl in the class with the same name as them - a Jamie with a Jamie, for example. “Boy, it’s bad,” he says. “Because it puts the otherness of the name in stark contrast. But it’s a pretty easy thing to tell schools: for God’s sake, don’t put boys and girls named Jamie in the same class. Maybe just check.”
But TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett rolls his eyes at this. “I don’t think anybody can suggest a plausible mechanism whereby a name can make you act in a certain way,” he says. “All of the big sociological indicators - they’re a tsunami of influence on the child. The name is just like flotsam floating on top.”
A name fit for a president
Figlio, however, is not finished. He also conducted a study looking at the names of girls most likely to pursue advanced-placement courses - equivalent to A-levels - in maths or science. Girls with traditionally feminine names, such as Isabella or Elizabeth, were far less likely to pursue maths and science to an advanced level than girls with androgynous names, such as Jordan or Alex.
This was true even when other variables were taken into account. So, if Isabella were to have a sister named Jordan, and both were equally talented at maths, Jordan would still be eight percentage points more likely to take an advanced course in maths than Isabella.
“To me, the most natural explanation is the cultural feedback loop,” Figlio says. “What’s the first thing a stranger always asks a child? ‘What’s your name?’ If people have subtly different reactions to names that are feminine or androgynous, that sort of thing can affect a girl’s self-concept.
“It’s the same thing with popular culture. Or if a child keeps encountering female role models with their names who behave in a feminine way. It could be that girls with names that are more boyish just experience less of that type of pressure.”
Bruning, of Ohio University, reminds new parents that, when they are naming a baby, they are also naming the adult who will bear the name for at least 50 years. “To decide if that’s a good name for an adult, put an adult title in front of it,” he says. He advocates the president test: try putting the word “president” before a name and see whether it creates a credible candidate. President Catherine or President Sarah would inspire confidence; President Trixi might struggle for votes.
But Cat Shepherd questions whether this remains a valid principle. “I’m quite happy to have Prime Minister Poppy,” she says. “I think that sounds quite cool, actually. I’m sure if you’d asked an American 10 years ago if they’d have been happy to have someone called Barack in charge of them, they’d have run a mile.
“Forget about skin colour - they’ve got a Barack in charge of them. Last time I checked, that’s a character in Mortal Kombat.” (She means Baraka. Barack was actually a biblical martial hero. But so was Josheb-Basshebeth and not many people would favour his odds in a presidential race.)
What, then, of unusually named children? Where do they fit into the spectrum of social acceptability? Mick Connell recalls two girls he taught in the 1980s, whose names were - ah, the 1980s - Storm and Hero. “There was nobody else in the school like them,” he says. “They were entirely non-conventional: bright, cynical outsiders. They had the wrong colour hair. They shortened their skirts too quickly. They were always on the margins of acceptability in terms of the amount of make-up they wore. They walked their own path.”
The sins of the 1980s do not end there. “Years ago, I used to teach a kid called Rio,” Shepherd says. “Everyone kept singing Duran Duran at her.” For those who may need a reminder, her name is Rio and she dances on the sand.
“She’d never heard of it, because she was born this century,” Shepherd says. “But everyone kept coming up to her and singing ‘her name is Rio’.
“You wonder what some of the parents are thinking. Are they trying to make a statement through their child? You assume that, like every parent, they want their child to be valued the same as other children.”
Figlio would like to see teacher training courses give all students the same essay to mark, each one with a different name at the top. They could then examine whether Daniel and Danyill had been given the same grades.
“If you understand that you’re stereotyping, you’re less likely to engage in stereotyping behaviour,” he says. “Make people aware that this is something they’re doing subconsciously and they may be less likely to do it.
“If you can get well-intentioned people not to accidentally hurt the people they’re trying to help, I’m not saying that will change the world, but it may help the world in a tiny way.”