Jayne Dowle: Straight to the point over school’s pencil ban

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PACKING her bag for school the other morning, Lizzie gave a world-weary sigh. “You’ll never guess what,” she said. “They’re banning pencil cases now.”

She uttered this statement in a tone which I imagine is familiar to the citizens of countries where the state has control over every aspect of their daily lives. Countries like North Korea perhaps. It’s not really what you expect from a primary school pupil in a fairly peaceful village in South Yorkshire.

First it was sweets, now it’s pencil cases. The list of items deemed verboten at my daughter’s school gets more questionable every term. I can see the reasoning on sweets, although I do think it’s a bit mean. Where’s the fun in being a kid if all you have to look forward to at play-time is a slice of healthy apple?

Pencil cases, though? That small item with a zip designed for the safe transportation of pens and pencils to and from an educational establishment? Surely it makes sense to keep all writing equipment together in one place, as I keep reminding my teenage son, who is rarely as “ready for learning” as his school would like him to be. We even get letters home from Jack’s school reminding us that pupils should turn up organised on a morning with a pen, pencil, protractor etc. Call me old-fashioned, but a pencil case seems like the ideal invention to facilitate this.

Why then has said item been banned at Lizzie’s school? It is because the children are spending too much time “messing about” with them in class. This is causing disruption and preventing the teachers from getting on with their actual job of teaching. I’d like someone to define to me “messing about” in this context. What could these children possibly be doing with their pencil cases? Looking in them? Stroking them (if they’re furry)? Counting the stickers on them? Hiding State secrets in them? Concealing the answers to this week’s spelling test?

What has the world come to if a bunch of junior school pupils can’t even be trusted to handle a pencil case? How are they going to cope when they get to secondary school and find themselves in sole charge of a dinner money card? A locker key? Heaven forfend, a PE kit? Is it any wonder that one of the teachers at my son’s school spent most of our parents’ evening appointment complaining that too many youngsters are turning up to secondary school completely ill-prepared to take responsibility for themselves? Is it any surprise that I know parents ferrying their children by car to sixth-form college and even turning up to accompany them to university lectures?

We hear so much about modern parents wrapping their children in cotton wool. Study after study says that we should let them learn by experience. Indeed, recent research by neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, an expert in the teenage brain, argues that parents who deny their children independence are raising a generation entirely ill-prepared to deal with failure in adult life. If you don’t let young people experiment and try things out for themselves, she argues, they have no chance of learning to stand on their own two feet.

“Children almost need to practice risk-taking to know exactly how to deal with situations when they fail and when things go wrong,” she says.

School should be a place where, free from the shackles of the home, individual children learn to become themselves, to interact with others and generally work out where they stand in the world. It shouldn’t be a prison where anything which might pose even a minor disturbance is confiscated just in case a riot breaks out.

Just how risky can carrying a pencil case be? I would argue that banning them from the classroom has more to do with the fear of teachers not being able to keep control and less to do with empowering children to take responsibility for their own novelty erasers. Let’s not blame the teachers for this entirely though. We should remind ourselves that badly-behaved pupils are widely regarded by their peers, teaching staff and Ofsted inspectors as the greatest barrier to learning in schools.

Government ministers can re-draw the curriculum as many times as they like, but they might as well not bother going to the trouble if pupils choose not to pay attention. And needless to say, all the “pupil premiums” and extra resources in the world go to waste if the class can’t settle down, stay quiet and get on with the work in front of them.

There is unfortunately, no magic solution to this challenging situation, which is rife in so many of our schools. You can blame poor parenting, bad diet, not enough sleep, too much screen-time causing attention deficit, children allowed to run riot at home and a myriad other social problems. Most parents – and teachers – would like to find a way to sort it out once and for all. Banning pencil cases from nine-year-old girls though? That’s not a solution, it’s another problem.