Ring the changes for the school bell, experts urge

18th March 2016 at 00:00
The sound can ‘distress’ pupils with autism, they say, as educators highlight the effect on asylum seekers

For generations, the traditional school bell has been an implacable organiser, an ominous warning to latecomers and a jolt of reality for daydreamers.

But now, experts have called for the bell to be consigned to history over fears that it can provoke “anxiety” and “sensory overload” in pupils, especially those with autism or mental health issues. Others have even warned that the sound could upset asylum seekers who have recently arrived in Scotland after fleeing conflict zones abroad.

Sally Cavers, the director of Scotland’s additional support for learning advice service, Enquire, said that the sound of a bell could be “distressing” and suggested that it was replaced with flashing lights or motivational dance music. Alternatively, pupils could be encouraged to choose what they wanted to replace the bell, she added.

A heavy toll

Ms Cavers, who spoke to TESS during Enquire’s conference on schools and mental health in Stirling last week, said that the volume setting could be very high and cause “deep anxiety” for anyone who “finds that a big sensory overload is too much”.

She said that her service was “quite often” contacted by people with concerns over the impact of the bell, such as children with autism. Parents who called Enquire often used the bell as a prime example of why a school placement was not working, she said.

Ditching the bell could have a big impact on some children’s ability to learn, she added. But it was not as easy as it might seem: in some public-private partnership (PPP) schools, removing the bell might require protracted talks with the company in charge of the building.

Guidance teacher Euan Duncan, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said that standing next to a very loud bell could be “startling”, although newer schools were less likely to have traditional bells. Schools had to be aware of “rising mental health issues” among young people, he added.

Playing music instead could, however, create its own problems. “Nobody expects a bell to be anything other than monotonous, but hearing the much-loved Pachelbel’s Canon nearly 2,000 times a year would send anyone into a loop,” Mr Duncan said.

But some institutions have already decided against using bells – for example, Newlands Junior College in Glasgow, which caters for teenagers who struggle in mainstream schools.

Principal Iain White said: “If you’re trying to get an atmosphere of calm, a bell ringing out at regular intervals is not a good idea.”

‘Difficult balancing act’

Educators also underlined the need for sensitivity towards pupils who may have arrived in Scotland as asylum seekers.

Gillian Campbell-Thow, Glasgow lead officer for modern languages and Gaelic, said: “Bells can mean an awful lot of things to them.” She was wary of using classical music, however, as “for some it soothes, [but] for others it infuriates”.

Joanna Rose, a primary teacher, liked the idea of removing bells, but said: “Years ago I worked at a school in South Korea where they had piped music instead. To be honest, it became just as annoying as a bell very quickly, and I still hear that same five-second snippet of tinny Mozart in my nightmares.”

She had, however, talked to a secondary colleague whose school did away with bells, saying: “After a week of chaos it has been amazing – much more relaxing for everyone.”

The Reverend Roddy Dick, a lecturer in mental health and learning disabilities at the University of the West of Scotland, said that it was a “difficult balancing act”: while some children with additional support needs found bells upsetting, others might like the structure and routine they represented.

Chris McGovern, chair of the Campaign for Real Education, saw the bell’s fate as a “red herring”, adding that other issues were far more likely to worry children. “There’s nothing more stressful than if you can’t read and write”, he said.


Replacing the school bell: chime in with your ideas

We asked a number of education professionals what could replace the school bell, prompting some eclectic responses:

(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life from Dirty Dancing Gillian Campbell-Thow, Glasgow lead officer for modern languages and Gaelic

The call of seagulls Eileen Prior, Scottish Parent Teacher Council

The commentary to Aberdeen’s winning goal against Real Madrid in 1983 Bruce Robertson, education directors’ body ADES

Bach’s Air on the G String John MacBeath, professor emeritus at the University of Cambridge

Recorded applause Professor Ross Deuchar, University of the West of Scotland

The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel Euan Duncan, Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association

An entire symphony staggered over a year Joanna Rose, primary teacher

What would you like to replace the school bell? Tweet your alternatives to @TESScotland

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