Question: Why does a good school change the name by which it has been known for generations?
Answer: When it has been standing next to a mental hospital for 146 years and the governors don’t like it.
Crowthorne in Berkshire, where I grew up, has some much-loved primary schools. The oldest is Broadmoor School, where I went, with a history stretching back to the time the hospital of that name was built as a ‘criminal lunatic asylum’. The earliest pupils were the children of staff at the hospital. That tradition, at least, continues.
So why cancel out nearly a century and half of history? A local paper reported earlier this year: “The governors of the school decided the current name’s connotations with the infamous high security hospital in the village were stopping parents choosing the school for their children.”
It grieves me, genuinely, that the school will this autumn change its name to Wildmoor Heath School, which sounds to me like something out of some lost Bronte novel.
So the school loses a name that relates directly to its history and its location in favour of a name that relates to a nearby nature reserve, a name that few people in Crowthorne recognise.
As a former schoolmate remarked yesterday: “Where the bloody hell is ‘Wildmoor’? Actually, it’s a little bit insulting.”
Broadmoor School is a typical red brick Victorian village school, with later additions at the back and a tarmac playground where countless children have played ‘It’, ‘British Bulldog’ and a curious game called ‘Off Ground He’, which involved racing to get off the ground at a given moment to hang from drainpipes and railings. There’s also a field for football, cricket, fetes and sports days. What marks the school out, in a good way, is the name, which far from being the stigma its current governors fear, is a source of pride for people like me who started a happy education there.
I’ve been thinking in the past few days about how a love of learning started in me at the school, and where it started. It was not in the classrooms but in the little library, which used to be in one cramped room off the corner of the school hall, and which doubled as a photographer’s studio once a year.
When my sister, brother and I were all at the school together in the mid seventies, we would be lined up annually for the Bennett ‘usual suspects’ mugshot. Here’s one. That’s me on the left.
I remember being yanked from the infants class by the no-nonsense Miss Foster (who had also taught my dad back in the forties). I had barely finished the tepid milk we were given every morning in squat glass bottles. “No timewasting and no burping. You say ‘pardon me’ when you burp. What do you say? Quick, quick.”
The photographer had set up a big white umbrella on a tall stand, with a big white light pointing into it. At the age of 6, I hadn’t seen anything like it, and stood staring.
I remember how the bright light fell on the shelves full of the clever books that the big children were allowed to read, in this room where only the big children were usually allowed. Hardback books with fat, glossy spines, not like the thin scrappy paperbacks in my class – some with teeth marks – which were kept in a jumble in a box.
A few years later I would spend a lot of time in that library, looking through the books and learning.
When I moved up to Mrs Cooper’s class, we learned about China. There was no mention of Communism – we were eight, this was Berkshire and Mrs Cooper’s husband was the local commissioner of the scouts.
Instead we learned about the Great Wall, gunpowder and the story of the willow pattern plate. We painted nonsense in made-up Chinese script. I know it was nonsense because when my grandad proudly showed my handiwork to Ping, his Chinese neighbour who owned the village chip shop, he was told: “Don’t mean anything.”
One day Mrs Cooper mentioned a man called Confucius, whilst dramatically chalking his name up on the blackboard. She had buck teeth and an enthusiastic way of teaching, which meant she would often spray spit over children in the front row. She turned round, and repeated: “Con – few – shoosssss”. Forewarned by my brother and sister, I always sat near the back. I watched the front rows duck.
Off I went to the library that afternoon, looked up Confucius and read about him.
Confucius came to mind when I heard about the move to change Broadmoor’s name.
He said: “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”