I’m fairly sure my school had a motto, but I can’t remember what it was. What I can remember however, in encyclopedic detail, are the mottos of the great houses in Game of Thrones.
For those with slightly less nerdy proclivities, the great houses in Game of Thrones are a pastiche of the noble houses in early modern Europe. Each has a motto, which functions as an epigram of the values and characteristics to which the house aspire. The resilience and dissidence of House Martell is captured in its motto “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken”, while the stoic pragmatism of House Stark derives from its words, “Winter is Coming”.
In the real world, mottos play an equally important role in defining and depicting the values of institutions — from the Royal Mail to Rangers Football Club. In some schools, rather than treated as words on blazer pockets, mottos are chanted at the start of the school day, during assemblies, and at the end of lessons.
Teacher Tapp wanted to get a sense of how widely mottos are put to such use, so we polled teachers and found that daily use lies outside the norm. Seventy-two per cent of respondents had made no reference to their school’s motto that day. In fact 55 per cent couldn’t remember what their school motto was!
The motivation for this memory lapse is clear: teachers don’t feel that mottos make much difference. Sixty-six per cent of polled teachers reckoned that if their school motto disappeared, student or staff attitudes or behaviour would not change.
Mottos should be used as memorable refrains that lodge themselves in long-term memory
Perhaps they are right. The values of a school are already in their policies and procedures, playing the necessary role in steering student behaviour. Adding a motto seems superfluous and self-indulgent.
But perhaps there’s a misunderstanding about the purpose of mottos. They are not surrogates for policies. Mottos should be used as memorable refrains that lodge themselves in long-term memory, ready to be retrieved when a situation demands it.
Using a motto as a decorative afterthought is unlikely to have an impact, but as a genuine guide for moral action it can be part of a virtuous cycle. Over time, mottos come to guide how we go about making policy and developing procedures.
In Game of Thrones, characters often find themselves reaching for their house mottos when they’re unclear how best to act. They serve as a moral orientation point, helping them to rediscover the values they identify with and wish to live by.
School mottos can do the same. There’s never been a more vivid example of this than the motto of Kensington Aldridge Academy. The school once stood metres from Grenfell Tower. Four of its pupils died in the disaster. Forced to relocate to a new site and with the trauma of the fire hanging over them, staff and students needed immense fortitude to carry on.
According to the headteacher, David Benson, they found this in their motto, Intrepidus: “Today and every day I will be the best that I can be. Every challenge I will rise to. Every setback I will come back from. Every moment I will seize.” Students already recited this motto at the start of their lessons. In the wake of tragedy, it provided a spontaneously accessible wellspring of strength.
This is a moving and instructive example of how schools can produce valuable mottos. They need to be easy to remember and easy to understand. More importantly, they need to mean something to the community and used regularly, whether through group recitation or inclusion in the curriculum. This weaving into community life can turn mottos into a moral north star, guiding students towards a life of strength, success and virtue – and away from an obsession with Game of Thrones.