They call it huggy love

When Michelle Obama hugged the Queen, eyebrows were raised. But is there anything wrong with a cuddle in the playground? Heads are split in their opinions, as Hannah Frankel reports

A little kiss and a cuddle behind the bike shed used to be a rite of passage for pupils. So when Mossbourne Community Academy in east London threatened any pupil hugging or kissing a pupil of the opposite sex with detention a couple of years ago, it caused a chorus of disapproval in the press.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the headteacher, vetoed all forms of "inappropriate" touching at the 900-pupil academy, arguing that contact between pupils should be formal and that anything more could potentially encourage sexual behaviour.

But while Mossbourne became the butt of criticism for what many felt was overt political correctness, was there an element of sense in the ban? Several schools operate similar bans, and, only a few months ago, amorous couples at Warrington Bank Quay railway station were asked to suppress their passion until they reached a designated "kissing zone" in the nearby car park to avoid causing any unnecessary congestion.

"It's about making sure contact is appropriate," says John Saunders, headteacher of Highworth Warneford School in Swindon, Wiltshire, who has had to periodically remind pupils to un-clinch. "Holding hands, cuddling or kissing would be inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, so why not follow similar standards here?"

Schools have generally stopped short of erecting the no petting signs reminiscent of public swimming pools circa 1975, but most have an implicit or explicit rule about touching. Co-educational private schools have been known to employ a "six-inch rule" to separate the sexes, while others have maintained certain standards regarding touch. Highworth School has always had a policy about "inappropriate behaviour" that includes canoodling.

"It's never been a big issue in the school," insists Mr Saunders. "If teachers are concerned, we sometimes read out a light-hearted note to remind pupils that there need to be limits. Some of our pupils in the upper school may be in the workplace in two or three years' time. They need to know what behaviour is expected of them."

But physical touch in schools, or the workplace, is not always inappropriate, insists David Cohen, the author of Body Language. "I've just come from a meeting with my publisher and we happily kissed each other on the cheek," he says. "It didn't progress into a massive orgy.

"I'd say about 90 per cent of the time, touch is totally appropriate. It's easier for institutions to give a blanket ban on touch rather than leave room for flexibility, but that does not mean they're right. Banning touch is more for the institution's convenience than anyone else's benefit."

Callington Community College in Cornwall insists its rules on physical contact benefit its pupils. It put a stop to excessive hugging two years ago, stating that it was getting in the way of teaching and learning. Steve Kenning, the then headteacher, said classes were starting late because girls insisted on embracing their friends during breaks.

He also claimed that some pupils were being hugged against their will. While stopping short of a total ban, Mr Kenning insisted that pupils only hug "when they need a hug".

But children who are taught how to develop their own boundaries should be able to decide for themselves when or how they want to be touched, insists Sylvia Clare from the school of psychology at the University of Southampton.

Instead of relying on top-heavy school rules, pupils need to have the self-confidence to accept or reject hugs, she says. They are then more likely to be able to spot and report any early signs of abuse.

"We need to promote more openness rather than more restrictive approaches," says Ms Clare. "Banning touch makes it forbidden and thus less `safe' to talk about openly."

Touch may be especially important to pupils from emotionally cold homes, adds Ms Clare. "In a culture where none is allowed, they may crave that contact and be more encouraged to accept inappropriate touching."

However, what constitutes inappropriate is not always clear. One primary school teacher, who wishes to remain anonymous, was unsure of how to react to a particularly enthusiastic game of kiss-chase in the playground, which saw nine-year-old girls kissing sometimes reluctant boys.

The situation got out of hand when some of the pupils complained to their parents. "My advice would now be to deal with anything you feel uncomfortable about as soon as possible, even if it seems like an over- reaction," she says.

"You should get reports from all the playground supervisors for every incident and present the parents with it before the kids get a chance to twist their story or, worse still, until something really bad happens during one of these games."

While teachers may point the finger at raging hormones for teenage shenanigans, it can be disturbing to witness much younger children engaging in sexual behaviour.

"It's either just natural curiosity or something a bit more sinister," says Gemma, a primary school teacher in Sheffield, who saw a pair of 10- year-olds locked in a passionate embrace in a shaded part of the playground.

"I told them to stop, but didn't really know what else to say or do after that. It did cross my mind that sexually abused children sometimes display more sexually advanced behaviour than their peers."

Sue Cowley, author of Teaching Skills for Dummies, suggests looking at this situation from a child protection perspective. She would urge Gemma to pass on the details of the kiss to her headteacher, who is likely to inform the children's parents.

"Obviously, it's a part of growing up, but what if things subsequently went further between the pupils?" she asks. "At secondary level, there is always going to be a bit of snogging behind the bike sheds among older pupils, but you'd hope they'd have enough sense to do it out of sight of their teachers."

A good rule of thumb is: what is acceptable in the playground is pretty much the same as what you would accept in the classroom, she adds. "After all, it's still a part of the school grounds." So, just as bullying and swearing has no place in school, the same goes for kissing. However, Ms Cowley would stop short of introducing a no-touch policy, saying teachers already have too many policies to juggle as it is.

Teachers have to be more careful still about their use of touch. They are normally advised not to make any physical contact with pupils unless a young person is particularly distressed or needs restraining.

This will prevent any touch being misconstrued by pupils, according to government advice. "As a general principle, staff must not make gratuitous physical contact with their pupils," it says.

Ms Clare thinks this prevents teachers from comforting and encouraging pupils with a simple touch of the arm. "Most touch is fine if you want to show a child that you care," she says. "Touch is one of our five senses. It is essential in order to communicate fully."

However, she stresses that it must be sincere contact rather than "acted out social conventions". Ms Cowley sees it rather differently. She may draw the line at smooching, but she wouldn't mind seeing pupils hug each other or take part in some healthy air kissing.

"But then again," she admits, "I am a drama teacher."

Other schools that play it safe

  • Wristbands that support various campaigns were banned at Bridgemary Community Sports College in Gosport, Hants, in 2003. The college constituted them as jewellery and therefore counter to the school uniform.
  • Conkers were banned from two primary schools on the grounds that they could provoke children's nut allergies in 2004. A school in Cumbria allowed pupils to play conkers but only when wearing safety goggles.
  • A primary school banned parents from taking pictures of their children's nativity play in 2002 to prevent images ending up in the hands of paedophiles. Sundon Lower School near Luton in Bedfordshire was concerned pictures may end up on the internet.
  • Thousands of primary children were banned from making Father's Day cards across Scotland so as not to embarrass pupils who live with single mothers or lesbian couples. Last year's ban was introduced by schools in Glasgow, Edinburgh, East Renfrewshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Clackmannanshire.
  • Hot cross buns were banned from schools in London's Tower Hamlets in 2003 in case they "sparked complaints from Jewish, Hindu and Muslim pupils and their families". Liverpool, York, Wakefield and Wolverhampton councils followed suit, although the Muslim Council of Britain called the decision "very, very bizarre".

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