Art - Toys, games, gum, tennis ball bombs...

Exhibition reveals contraband items confiscated by teachers

Adi Bloom

All children know the rules: take certain items into school and you can be fairly sure they will be confiscated by a teacher: mobile phones, computer games, semi-automatic weapons.

All these and more - including a range of firearms, DIY explosives and a home-made axe - are among the confiscated items on display in a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in East London. Confiscation Cabinets includes classroom contraband collected from 150 London schools between the 1970s and the present day. The exhibition was put together by artist and supply teacher Guy Tarrant.

"As a supply teacher, when you're going to a school you're pretty much in the lion's den," he told TES. "There are a lot of people off-task, disengaged, unsettled. I think that's a waste."

The artist wanted to compile visual evidence of what he was observing in schools. And that was when he began thinking about the various items that he had confiscated from misbehaving students over the years.

About half the items on display were collected by Mr Tarrant himself. His first confiscation was a home-made axe, taken from a Year 9 boy (aged 13- 14) with behavioural difficulties. The boy had climbed on to the school roof, then pulled off a piece of slate and one of the wooden roof joists. Attaching the two together to form an axe, he began running around the playground, chasing his fellow students.

The other half of the collection was donated by the school leaders and senior teachers Mr Tarrant works with. Among these items is a tennis ball belonging to some Year 10 boys. They had filled it with 200 match heads, hoping that it would explode when thrown at the teacher. It did not; the teacher confiscated it.

A grammar school headteacher also donated a tennis ball. Demonstrating the value of selective schooling, his students had simply doused it in lighter fluid and set fire to it. They then donned oven gloves and played catch.

But the exhibition also contains more poignant items - a broken knife taken from a girl who was self-harming, for example - as well as football cards, bubblegum and teen magazines.

"School stationery features a lot," Mr Tarrant said. "It's to do with boredom - this is the stuff in front of them that they can fiddle with or play with or turn into aeroplanes."

He once confiscated a set of ersatz playing cards, drawn by Year 11 boys. The boys had torn up A4 writing paper to make the cards and were using them to play blackjack. "I had to take them off them," Mr Tarrant said. "But I also had to give them points for creativity."

He is keen to point out that no object in the exhibition was stolen. But the fickleness of fashion means that earrings, rings and even phones and computer games often languish unclaimed in a teacher's office.

"I don't want to cause trouble," Mr Tarrant said. "I'm just trying to raise questions and to get people to think about objects and the school environment."

When students from George Abbot School in Surrey, south- east England, visited the exhibition, 16-year-old Tilly Grimes was fascinated by the cabinets' contents. "There were weapons and stuff," she said. "It was school, but they'd turned it into something dangerous. I can't really imagine why you'd do that."

But according to deputy headteacher Philip Reeves, many of his students were actually surprised by the familiarity of the displays. "Things haven't changed over time," he said. "It's the same old situation. Children are always trying to do things they shouldn't and adults are always responding to that."

Confiscation Cabinets is on at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in East London until 1 June 2014.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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