Three cheers for Duncan Byrne, head of the independent Loughborough Grammar School, who declared last week that he was banning classroom banter in his all-boys’ school.
He claims that this isn’t mere do-gooding in the age of snowflakes, but part of a coherent strategy to counter what Mr Byrne terms “toxic masculinity”. His Great Men programme aims to encourage boys to open up more readily, to express their feelings, to know and accept that it’s OK to cry.
Some might argue that there’s little that’s novel here. In education, as in most things, there’s arguably nothing new under the sun.
The scourge of toxic masculinity
But this initiative, whether innovative or not, is nonetheless important and deserving of wider discussion. For toxic masculinity remains a scourge in our schools and in our society, and so-called banter – which may start harmlessly enough, but too easily becomes cranked up into something destructive – provides a conduit by which it spreads.
Looking back to my early years as a teacher, 40 years ago, I still shudder when I recall allowing banter to run on. Young, probably wanting to be popular but, above all, ignorant (or at least naive) about how mild leg-pulling concealed or developed into bullying, I know there were too many occasions when I failed to step in and put a stop to it.
Schools and teachers are very much wiser and better-prepared nowadays. Far more aware, and hopefully trained to spot it, they will tend to take action, and perhaps even initiate discussion about why such behaviour is wrong.
On the other hand, teachers are busy. They have lessons to teach and, besides, if verbal bullying has reduced in the classroom, its digital equivalent has multiplied exponentially through social media.
Eager to be in the online chat group or active on the latest trending platform, children reveal too much of themselves (both physically and emotionally, alas) and are hurt and bewildered when those revelations are turned back on them with intent to hurt. We adults struggle to keep up: witness the latest bizarre craze of “sadfishing”, where kids (perhaps self-indulgently) share online descriptions of how low they’re feeling today. Why do they do it? People of my generation are generally baffled by what appears a wilful courting of harm.
The sour maleness of present-day politics
This is not a problem confined to boys, of course. If I appear to have strayed from my opening topic, I’d merely comment that such bullying, undermining of physical and emotional confidence – those extensions of banter at its most vicious – is fed by toxic masculinity, which is in turn fuelled by the dreadful examples set by those who should know better.
The sour maleness of present-day politics becomes ever-more toxic as the Brexit row continues. I simply cannot comprehend the prime minister scribbling “girly swot” about David Cameron in a meeting note and apparently mouthing “big girl’s blouse” as a term of abuse directed at the leader of the opposition in the Commons. Worse still, the hyperbolic language of those ardent Brexiters who liken the wrangling over Brexit to a war (“which we won last time”) is, while indubitably absurd, simultaneously macho and dangerous.
Meanwhile female public figures, from the Duchess of Sussex through MPs and MEPs to anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, routinely suffer sexist, racist, threatening and vile trolling online and, frequently, verbal abuse and threat in the street. Commentators reckon nearly all of it comes from men.
So, yes, there’s a job to be done. Boys and men who get better at talking about and analysing their own feelings will inevitably see their levels of – and capacity for – empathy increase similarly. Programmes like Loughborough Grammar School’s Great Men won’t solve all the problems besetting us with regard to toxic masculinity, but they’ll certainly help.
There’s plenty of knowledge and experience to be shared, so let’s support such initiatives by getting the discussion going, and broadcasting it by means of the very digital technology that is causing us so many headaches.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford