When two girls were reprimanded for linking arms at St Benedict's Catholic College in Colchester, other pupils staged a walk-out. They believed the school was implementing a no-touch rule, forbidding physical contact between pupils - though headteacher John O'Hara has denied that any such ban is in place.
While the situation at St Benedict's is uncertain, many schools take a clear stance. Some have specific rules about kissing or hand-holding; others have guidelines relating to public displays of affection. Though a ban on hugging sounds uptight, some heads insist that the rules are there for a reason.
"Couples wandering around arm in arm might be nice on Blackpool prom, but it is not appropriate for a working environment," says Lynn Whittaker, co-principal at Merrill College in Derbyshire. "At the same time, we try not to be over-the-top. It is usually a case of just having a quiet word and asking pupils if they know what rule they are breaking."
At Merrill the rule is clear - no physical contact of any kind. "This covers acts of aggression as well as displays of affection," says Ms Whittaker. "It has helped us to clamp down on the pushing or jostling that can sometimes go on in the corridors. It has made the school more civilised."
But psychologist Sylvia Clare believes a rule which bans hugs and hand-holding is anything but civilised. "Touch is an important part of human interaction," she says. "Young people are naturally tactile, and if you punish them for reaching out to others you are not allowing them to be themselves."
Kathryn Coiffait, headteacher at Gates Primary in Bolton, agrees that physical contact is instinctive. She says that at primary level, a no-touch policy would be almost impossible to enforce. "Children play games in which physical contact is unavoidable, and we are very comfortable with pupils holding hands and hugging in an appropriate context. That is a positive thing to have in a school. It is part of our caring ethos."
Some primaries even go so far as active promotion of physical contact through peer-to-peer massages, where children spend time rubbing each other's shoulders. Massage In Schools is a worldwide initiative and there are more than 100 UK schools taking part in the programme. Research suggests these daily moments of human contact not only improve children's social skills but also make them calmer and less aggressive.
So why the differing approach between hands-on primaries and stand-off secondaries? Is it just puberty that gets in the way? "That is probably the reason behind schools' thinking," says Ms Clare. "But it really shouldn't matter. Just because teenagers are more sexually aware, it doesn't mean physical contact has to stop. That would imply that all touch is somehow sexual and that is not a healthy message to send out. Unfortunately, Britain still seems a bit repressed - in most countries it is normal for two friends to link arms."
POINTS TO CONSIDER
- If you introduce a rule relating to physical contact, be sure to explain your reasons clearly to pupils.
- A rule about inappropriate behaviour is more flexible than a blanket no-touch rule.
- Be sensitive. If someone is upset, it is natural for a friend to comfort them.
- Appropriate contact between pupils may create a more caring ethos and improve social skills.