If a school already has a strong ethos and set of values which are understood by everybody - what is the point of having a motto?

Posted on: 24 Jan 2018
Posted by: Neil Walker

Neil Walker, headmaster at Westfield School in Newcastle, outlines his views on school mottoes and why they can act as a useful guiding principle to live by.

For the first time in my life I’m in a school that doesn’t have a motto, and I hadn’t even noticed anything missing until I read an article in The Independent earlier this year! We have a strong ethos and set of school values which are understood by everybody so what is the point of having a motto?

Often a school’s motto and its mission statement do not seem to be related, and when the motto was created a few hundred years ago that is understandable - times have changed. New academies and free schools are being created all the time and they seem to feel the need to create a motto to have on the school crest and to proudly display on their blazer pockets. So where does the idea of mottoes come from? The motto (Italian for "word") really only appears in the 14th century, and becomes fashionable in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was originally a personal choice designed to express some particular quality, intention or event. Family mottoes were rarely seen and every gentleman with a coat of arms was free to choose their own or change it when circumstances changed. The earliest mottoes were likely to have originated from feudal war cries. The most famous instance is the English royal motto: Dieu et mon droit, supposedly the war-cry first used at the battle of Crécy in 1346 (God and my right, i.e. to the throne of France). Many people believe that the English Royal motto is Honi soit qui mal y pense, but this of course is simply the motto of the Order of the Garter.

So why are they important? Because the idea of a motto can be a useful guiding principle to live by. Gordon Brown on his first day as Prime Minister stood on the steps of 10 Downing Street and quoted the motto from his old school, Kircaldy High School, “I will try my utmost”.

The motto of the school I went to is Pensez Forte – “think strongly” I remember a number of assemblies when our head would try to explain what this meant in practice, for example “the brain is mightier than the sword” or “think about why you are thinking as well as what you’re thinking”.

At St Andrew’s University there is a semi-official motto which was very unusual because it is in Greek. AIEN ARISTEUEIN “Ever To Be The Best”.

At Dunottar school where I worked previously the motto is ‘Do ut des’ “I give that you may give” reflecting the principle of reciprocity. Charitable work was a key feature of this school with every girl involved in fundraising for others. Other schools are possibly more pragmatic, the Croham Hurst motto ’Finis coronat opus’, “The end crowns the work”, preceded the current obsession with league tables and examinations but transfers well into the modern era!

However the one abiding motto that I still recall and try to live with is, ‘Nil desperandum, experto crede’, which we simply translated as “Never despair, believe in yourself”. As we go through this world we all need some guiding light, or possibly slogan to live by, what’s yours going to be?

About Neil Walker

Neil Walker is headmaster at Westfield School in Newcastle.