Aside from cleaner carpets, research shows that allowing children to go barefoot in the classroom results in improved reading skills and fewer behavioural issues – and the odour won’t be nearly as bad as you imagine, finds Carly Page
For the past nine months, the message of hygiene and cleanliness has dominated schools, and yet not once has anyone looked down and thought about their feet. While we’ve scrubbed our hands and the surfaces they come into contact with relentlessly, our shoes – and the colony of germs locked into the soles – have run (sorry, walked in orderly fashion) free in the corridors and classrooms.
Well, in the UK they have. In countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Sweden, removing outdoor footwear before entering the classroom is standard practice.
You see, teachers in those schools think about feet a lot – and not just for cleanliness reasons, according to Stephen Heppell, professor of new media environments at Bournemouth University.
Heppell conducted a 10-year study into “shoeless” learning spaces, in 25 countries, and came to the conclusion that going barefoot has the potential to bring about a “complex mix of significant gains”.
Cleanliness, he says, is the first benefit that schools notice. “People aren’t carrying in dirt from elsewhere, which means the classroom stays cleaner, and it’s easier to clean the room at the end of the day as you don’t have to use aggressive chemicals,” says Heppell. “You’ll save a quarter of the cleaning budget and the furniture lasts twice as long.”
Heppell, though, says the numerous other benefits are just as worthy of consideration.
He explains that his research demonstrated that a shoeless classroom provides a calmer atmosphere with less circulation noise, which means that pupils are more willing to engage in learning activities.
Reading skills are also more likely to improve when pupils aren’t wearing restrictive footwear, says Heppell. Children who read at home are unlikely to do so sitting in an upright chair while wearing outdoor footwear, and he believes that having the same environment
in a classroom has the potential to create the same sense of freedom when reading.
Good for the sole
What about behaviour? Heppell’s study suggested that a shoeless environment is one in which bullying is less likely to occur. Lampton Secondary School, a school in Hounslow that trialled shoeless learning, also reported that disruptions within class and reports of confrontational and aggressive behaviours were both significantly down after the implementation of the policy.
That’s quite a list of possible benefits resulting from simply taking off your shoes. For the cynical, is there any reason why removing your footwear should be such a catalyst for change?
Heppell admits that while he believes going barefoot creates a sense of relaxation and comfort, the reason shoeless learning works remains unclear.
“The Chinese tell me it works because of reflexology, and in India they say it helps the children to respect the school because they take their shoes off in the temple,” he says. “I couldn’t tell you which is true, but I can tell you it’s hard to be naughty when you have your shoes off.”
If you are tempted to give this a try and see if the benefits really are as numerous as they appear, Heppell says there are a number of specific details that schools need to consider.
For example, you will need to give ample notice so that children are prepared and they don’t wear socks with holes in them, and you’ll need to find a place for the shoes so they are not piled on top of each other in a shoe mountain outside of the classroom.
You will also need to make sure that it’s an inclusive policy, and that means that teachers and guests must go shoeless, too. “It only works if the adults do it, because part of the attraction of this is that the carpets stay clean,” Heppell says. “If the teachers are all wearing their outdoor boots, then the kids aren’t going to sit on the carpet.”
He adds, though, that finding a compromise between “no shoes” and “always shoes” is no bad thing.
“I think that feet on the ground is the best way to go, but wearing slippers or plimsolls in the classroom is still better than outdoor shoes”, says Heppell.
There are more schools in the UK already doing this than you might think. Sahrish Khan, a primary school teacher and NQT mentor, says the benefits of going barefoot have helped her students to become more relaxed and academically engaged.
“A shoeless culture in the classroom came from our headteacher, who had researched it and wanted to see if students truly did
feel more comfortable within the learning environment,” she says.
“We tried it with Year 1 students and set out a few rules to help everyone understand it. We implemented a broad ‘no shoes allowed’ rule in the classroom. They were left outside, the children had to wear socks and they were required to change into shoes when going outside. The no-shoes was purely for learning in the classroom.”
It proved a big success, Khan says, both anecdotally and in the results teachers began to see. “Teaching the class, you could feel the atmosphere transform: the children loved it! Across the year we had improved learning as children felt at ease and were, in turn, more comfortable learning things that put them out of their comfort zone. It was as simple as even seeing the children’s body language change as they relaxed,” she says.
“In fact, one change was how some children would sit with their legs crossed on the chair, which in some schools could be seen as disrespectful, but I know that being able to do that meant they were more interactive and happy to answer questions.”
As lovely as this sounds, there will be teachers who will remain unconvinced.
For some, the thought of coordinating the taking off and putting on of 30 pairs of shoes will be too much to bear. For others, the science just won’t add up. But in secondary in particular, the biggest barrier will likely be the presumed smell of the feet of more than 1,000 teenagers.
Heppell, though, has an answer to that last one. “The kids always say ‘our feet are going to really smell!’ but it’s just the opposite,”
he says. “Your feet smell because you’re in a plastic trainer – you have smelly feet in shoes, but not out of shoes.”
Well, there you go. What’s stopping you?
Carly Page is a freelance journalist
This article originally appeared in the 8 January 2021 issue under the headline “Lose the shoes to start students off on the right foot”