Is it bonkers to ban conkers?

16th February 2007 at 00:00
The truth about PC schools - barring Mother's Day or hugging - is complex

WHEN HELEN Starkey decided against children at her school making Mother's Day cards, she did not realise it would become international news.

Johnstown primary, in Carmarthen, South Wales, suddenly found itself making the headlines in the Pakistan Times, via Britain's Sun. Under the headline "Mum's day cards ban", the Sun asked its readers: "Is this the mother of all blunders, or do you think the school has a point?"

Her intention had been to spare the feelings of those of her pupils without mothers, but her action led her into a media maelstrom. She was accused of "political correctness gone mad".

"Anyone who knows me wouldn't say I was hip or PC at all," she said. "I'm very traditional.

"The idea that the cards were banned completely is wrong, as there is an opportunity where children can make cards if they choose to. We just decided not to do it as part of the curriculum.

"I only wish the parent who had gone to the press about it had spoken to me first."

In recent years, heads have taken the flak for everything from banning competitive sports days, Christmas cards and even The Three Little Pigs.

One head was called "barmy" earlier this week, after banning games of tag for health-and-safety reasons. Susan Tuck, headteacher of Bracebridge Heath primary in Lincoln, said her attempt to calm aggressive children in the playground had been misconstrued.

She said: "I think a parent must have gone to the press when we sent a leaflet home to parents about it. There's nothing wrong with tag, but some pupils were playing it very aggressively, thumping each other on their backs. I never actually said 'You can't play tag'."

Steve Kenning, of Callington community college in Cornwall, became known as "the headteacher who banned hugging" last year. He received hate mail calling him a "fascist" after reports he had banned the show of affection on his corridors. Old ladies sent him poems about the joys of hugging.

But Mr Kenning says the story was ridiculously exaggerated by a pupil, whose parents then went to the local press.

"We had simply told a number of pupils to calm down their habit, as it was taking forever for them to get to lessons. After it appeared in the local paper, we had 25 different news organisations ringing us up from everywhere. When I explained it was untrue, they just didn't want to know."

Callington has since been able to make light of the episode: Mr Kenning's Christmas cards to staff this year were signed "From the Hugmaster".

Shaun Halfpenny, head of Cummersdale primary near Carlisle, told the local press his pupils had to wear safety goggles while playing conkers.

By the next day, Radio 4 asked him to take part in a debate about the issue. "We soon had five TV crews turn up who were trying to paint me as some kind of health-and-safety nutcase," he said. "In the end though, the whole thing actually created a kind of national conker revival and put the school on the map."

He too received hate mail: one letter from a BNP supporter said the goggles-only policy was an attack on English values.

Emma Leech, head of education and skills at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, said all headteachers should make sure they are prepared for their moment in the news.

"Something in the local paper on Wednesday can be global news by Wednesday afternoon. Heads should get to know their local authority protocols, get some training, and be aware of who they need to speak to in a crisis."

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