Student protests across England and Wales spread via social media, experts say

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A wave of student protests that has caught school leaders across England and Wales by surprise has mixed origins but is being spread via social media, experts said.

Organized and shared on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat, the protests often involve strict uniform codes and rules restricting toilet use. Principals are particularly concerned because some protests have been supported by parents.

The disruptive behavior, which has resulted in large numbers of students being suspended and in some cases involving the police, has been linked to a reported increase in challenging behavior in schools since the disruption caused by the pandemic and lockdown.

However, Tom Bennett, the author of Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behavior and adviser to the Department of Education, said he did not believe the protests were genuine and there was no evidence linking them to lockdown or Covid restrictions. It was “mainly yobbish behavior and messiness, jacked up by praise for filming it and putting it on TikTok.”

“It’s an imitation behavior,” he said, “that has more in common with fads and fads than with a more complex cultural phenomenon or expression of protest. Schools should take a clear line on this and warn students that there will be serious consequences if they participate.”

The wave of protests began last week in schools in Southampton, Essex and Blackpool, among others, and has continued into this week with similar actions in schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf in Wales and Cornwall.

Pupils at Rainford High School in St Helens, Merseyside, protested after girls were threatened with suspension over the length of their skirts. Footage on social media shows hundreds of students gathered in the school’s corridors to protest the tough policies. A video on TikTok has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.

At Mountain Ash, in the Welsh town of the same name, 34 students have been suspended for a period of time and an investigation continues after repeated fire alarms were sounded at a protest over the school’s toilets on Tuesday.

In a letter to parents and carers, school principal Samantha Evans said some of the students were planning a peaceful protest, but others were exhibiting “serious anti-social behavior,” which resulted in the entire school being evacuated multiple times.

“We are also disappointed with some of the social media posts in our community, including posts from some of the parents of those involved, who glorified and praised this appalling behavior,” she said.

Elsewhere, parents have expressed sympathy for their children’s objections to what they see as pointlessly rigid behavior and uniform codes. The mother of a Rainford High School student said: “This is a repressive regime. Education seems to be at the bottom of the priority list. They all miss time in training because of the skirt length.”

At Weston Secondary School in Southampton, around 200 pupils took part in a protest against unisex toilets and restrictions on pupils leaving class to use toilets. One mother told the local newspaper: “I’m not funny but the girls need their own toilets. Students should be allowed their freedom.”

Bennett thinks the protests are just fig leaves for kids to fool around and miss classes. He said students made unreasonable demands to leave the classrooms if they felt like it, even demanding vaping rooms in some cases. “These are safety issues that we cannot back down on. When a student has a valid concern, they raise it with their parents, teachers and student council representatives, rather than disrupting classes and disturbing the peace of the school.”

Alongside behavioral issues, schools are struggling to bring attendance rates back to pre-Covid levels, with more students absenteeism than before the pandemic. Some principals and principals are concerned that there has been a “cultural shift” in attitudes towards the school. Teachers say parents are more reluctant to send children to school and more resistant to efforts to encourage school attendance.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said social media is an increasing problem for schools, as teachers have recently been attacked by students on TikTok making baseless allegations of sexual misconduct and offensive language, and schools frequently do so would have to deal with the consequences of incidents in social media.

“The protests generally seem to be about rules about uniforms and toilet use, although in some cases there have actually been no changes to the rules. In any case, if students are unhappy about a school rule, they should raise it through the normal channels rather than staging protests, which are bound to be disruptive and the last thing schools need at any time, but especially when they are having a face such a range of pressures as we are facing at the moment.”

He added: “There is a broader problem with an increase in the challenging behavior of some students since the Covid pandemic. It’s difficult to say categorically why this might be the case, but it appears to be related to the disruption to normal routines during the pandemic, increased levels of anxiety and depression among young people and their families, and the erosion of local support services for children and families in the last ten years.”

Bennett was dismissive. “There is no evidence it was inspired by lockdown or Covid restrictions. While many school children heard about it, a tiny, tiny number of schools saw disorder as a result. We don’t have much evidence that school behavior has gotten worse or better since Covid. There’s not a lot of data beyond anecdotes — despite confident claims going both ways.”

TikTok said its security teams are closely monitoring the content of the school protests to ensure they follow community guidelines. A spokesman said most of the content featured students participating in peaceful demonstrations, which is not against TikTok policies.

An Education Department spokesman said: “We are concerned by the reports of disruption and will be in touch with all schools and local authorities to ensure they are supported at this time.

“We will always support school leaders in taking the necessary actions to maintain a calm and supportive classroom environment, as they are best placed to work collaboratively with their teachers, parents, students and local communities in policy development and implementation .”

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