Last week, the tabloids were awash with a yet another "School bans…" story. This time, the "ban" in question was the floss dance, which has its origins in the video game Fortnite and was then popularised by footballer Dele Alli when he used it as a goal celebration. Any parent or teacher reading this is probably already acutely aware of its work.
These types of articles are now standard fodder and always guaranteed to provoke an almighty reaction from the "PC gone mad" brigade, alongside plenty of web traffic and subsequent social media discussion. But at what cost?
If the past two years (which included two media furores over the use of gender neutral language and uniform in schools in which I was personally embroiled) have taught me anything, it’s that these stories always involve a crucial context which has, for reasons of word count or deliberate misinterpretation, been omitted. So when I read the headline "Primary school bans Floss Dance after pupils use it to 'intimidate' classmates," along with a quotes from parents branding it "ludicrous", "ridiculous" and claiming the ban had caused their floss-loving children anxiety, I immediately got in touch with the school in question – Ilfracombe Junior in Devon.
As I suspected, the school told me that the story didn’t quite reflect the reality of events at the school, and had caused considerable inconvenience and distress. “You’re the first person who has actually bothered to ask us what really happened,” said Jody Le Bredonchel, the assistant head. “As a school, we’ve worked really hard to establish good relationships with the local community. This story has really undermined that. Plus it’s taken up all my time this week. As if I don’t have anything else to do.”
Le Bredonchel told me that the "ban" actually didn’t relate to "flossing" at all, but to the so called "loser dance", also from Fortnite (which, incidentally, has an age rating of 12 and has recently been linked to its players being targeted for far-right radicalisation).
“Up to 12 pupils would surround one individual in the playground and perform the loser dance, whilst taunting them. The pupils who were targeted confided in me that they found this very hurtful and after each incident, I intervened. After the third incident, I decided to speak to all the children,” Le Bredonchel said.
Pupils were asked to gather in the playground, where it was explained to them that the behaviour involving the "loser dance" was unacceptable and not in keeping with the ethos of the school. “While I was at it,” Le Bredonchel told me, “I decided to talk about flossing. Like most children their age, our kids had really taken to it and were doing it all the time, whilst lining up, in the corridor, even when talking to staff. I said that we wouldn’t expect them to be flossing while a member of staff was talking to them and reminded them that Fortnite was not age-appropriate.”
This is, of course, a total non-story, the sort of thing which does and should go on in schools up and down the country every single day. If it had been reported this way no one would have clicked or commented. Enter Facebook.
“Afterwards some children went home and talked to their parents about what was said,” Le Bredonchel’s story goes on. “This was then discussed on a gossip page on Facebook with parents saying that the policy was ‘ridiculous’. Soon, other parents, many of whom didn’t even have a child at our school, started to join in. A lot of what was said was simply untrue.” It was these Facebook discussions that were subsequently picked up by local and then national media.
Of course, schools make decisions all the time based on protecting their most vulnerable pupils and often to fully explain their rationale would involve identifying those children. This essentially places them in a position where parents can say whatever they like about teachers unchallenged.
Le Bredonchel told me that what upset him most was seeing his fellow teachers sharing the stories on social media “as though they were fact”.
“Teachers need to support one another when this kind of thing happens in schools,” he concluded.
He's not wrong.
Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here.