Hell's bells

29th May 2015 at 01:00

Poor old Quasimodo; that tragic hero, his days dictated by the haunting sound of bells. I know exactly how he felt, as do most people who work in schools.

Our lives are measured by the ringing of those bloody bells. Maybe you don't have them. Perhaps your school is one of those progressive institutions that has replaced them with the soulful singing of whales or the early morning call of an ascending lark. Pan pipes, anyone?

Bells signal the beginning and the end of everything in our school. The second the bell rings for the "official" start of the day at 8.15am, I hear the opening strains of the theme from Rocky in my head.

When I was a pupil, a million years ago, we also had bells. One would signal the end of a lesson; three minutes later another would peal to indicate the start of the next class. It's only now that I'm on the other side of the bell that I realise what a brilliant idea that was. That 180-second pause before the start of the next lesson gave everyone time - not only to breathe but also to prepare. Unlike now.

Take my Wednesday morning. I have six lessons in a row (granted, with a 20-minute "break" after the first four). But I teach six different classes in those six lessons, with five different age groups. As the bell chimes, one lesson ends and another instantaneously begins.

Great poets have always understood the power of the bell. D H Lawrence saw it as a release ("When will the bell ringAnd end this weariness?"). Roger McGough puzzled over it as a newcomer to school ("Waiting for the bell to goTo go where?"). And, perhaps most famously, John Donne used it as a symbol of death (".send not to knowFor whom the bell tollsIt tolls for thee").

I have been a resident of this bell-ridden system for almost 40 years and I feel completely institutionalised. The bells tell me when I can eat, when I can go to the toilet and when I can leave. It's strange for an adult to have someone, or something, controlling every part of their working life. Orwellian, even.

So what's the alternative? The whale music and the pan pipes? Maybe we should go for the approach being championed in the Julia Richman Education Complex in New York City, where there are no bells and pupils have control over the structure of their days.

Aren't bells a bit archaic and formulaic? Don't they signify the stifling nature of our education system? Don't they lend themselves quite easily to cries of being trapped by convention, rather than encouraging pupils to think outside the box?

Or is it much less complex than that? Do bells just bring a bit of much-needed order to the day, therefore allowing the freedom of thought and expression that we all want so badly for ourselves and for our students?

I do know one thing. It never fails to amuse me when a visitor unwittingly finds themselves beneath a bell as it screams into life and they nearly have a coronary.

Oh, come on. You've got to get your kicks when you can. Maybe these brief moments of joy are worth the tyranny of the bell after all.

Zareena Huber teaches English at a school in North London

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