It's fine to be you - but make the most of it!

I was intrigued to read this headline from the Metro earlier this week: ‘Your surname could be ruining your career, study finds’. 

The article (https://metro.co.uk/2024/04/22/name-determine-well-school-study-finds-20693104) cites recent research from the University of Michigan which found that students whose surnames came later in the alphabet received lower grades than those at the top of the roll call. It also found that those students tended to receive harsher comments on their work and benefit from lower grading quality, measured by post-grade complaints. The findings were based on more than 30 million scores marked through the popular grading software, Canvas, which gives students’ papers to teachers for marking in alphabetical order by default. The reasons for the findings were unclear but thought to relate to increasing levels of fatigue and irritability when teachers spent long periods marking. The chief researcher said: “A college student emailed, asking us to share the paper with him. He mentioned that his last name started with W. He’s going to tell his parents that his lower grades are not because of him but because of his last name!” 

I should reassure you firstly that teachers at LGS tend to mark books or assignments in the order in which they collect them, and secondly that this Mr W. has not been held back in life by his surname! That said, it is sometimes tiresome waiting your turn at the bottom of the alphabet or finding yourself relegated to the back of the queue – though my height has always meant that I’m often one of the first to be picked on or chosen! 

It is really important as teachers that we do our best to avoid systems or markschemes which rely too heavily on subjectivity or which risk unconscious bias. We must also do our best to ensure adequate attention and monitoring for those ‘in the middle’. That is why, when we analyse grades, we look first at effort and then achievement not just in accordance with raw rank but in relation to baseline data which we hold. A pupil may be working very hard but still scoring in the middle or at the lower end of our selective cohort – and that’s fine as long as they are doing their best and in fact performing in line with their potential. Alternatively, a pupil could be happily coasting along somewhere in the middle when our judgement and the data tell us that, with greater exertion,  they could discover their true capabilities. 

We should be more sophisticated than to accept specious excuses for underperformance (such as having an alphabetically challenged surname), and we should also look beyond the obvious and give praise, encouragement and credit when they are due, without making demands which are unrealistic for a particular child. 

When all is said and done, I am very happy to be a W – in fact a JWW – and I hope that all our pupils can find pride in who they are, in their individual efforts and in their well-deserved successes. 

P.S. I have returned home tonight from the County Young Enterprise Final in which the Year 12 LGS team, Catalyst, won three of the six awards, earning a place in the East Midlands final. Well done! 

Best wishes, 

John Watson 
Headmaster and Principal