School children wearing masks has become one of the major bones of contention this autumn - some parents are horrified at the idea. But face coverings are very much part of the Government's plan for getting schools and pupils back to normal. And now that it is, the argument lies not so much in should children wear masks but for how long, where and in what way.
And once that decision is made - and it has been; official guidance says that schools will have the discretion to require face coverings indoors - surely the more important questions arise around compliance and how we maintain the highest standards of education and discipline with masks not without them?
I should say first, I do have some sympathy for those who cannot countenance face coverings of course. Wearing a mask is a strange thing for most people to do if they’re not accustomed to it. Most of us will have found it hard, initially because it is so difficult to change people’s habits.
Children find this kind of substantial change equally hard. But once you get them in school, many young people are happy to agree to what teachers want them to do. Some will find it hard to change their minds, and a minority will actively work against your behavioural instructions. However, at its core, enforcing good mask-wearing at school is no different to any other instruction, be it asking children to bring in three pencils a day, or walk on the left.
The main issue with masks in school is not only the wearing of them though, but also making sure that students know when they are supposed to don them, how to place them properly, and how to keep them clean.
Some, such as Michaela Community School head Katharine Birbalsingh, have expressed concerns that children wearing face masks might directly lead to bad behaviour. I don’t think this is as much of an issue as people imagine. If the problem is misbehaviour through talking in class - and teachers not being able to identify the culprits - it’s still possible to manage this. Experience has taught me that one can recognise accent and tone, and police it as normal: “I can hear some talking over here, please keep it down.” But then explaining why you have to wear masks properly is important too.
Educators have to sell the benefits of the new behaviour, and teach it, not just tell it. This means demonstrating it, getting children to practise it, and correcting them when they get it wrong – just as you would with any other lesson. Then, if pupils fail to comply, they’ve got to be challenged on it, every single time.
Staff need to be trained, too, on how to challenge students that aren’t complying. For when the challenge is routine, that’s when you get far higher levels of compliance. And because modelling behaviour is important, if staff are required to wear masks then they should be taught to do so.
I know that in schools across the country, many children will come from homes where mask-wearing isn’t taken seriously or is actively discouraged. As teachers, we deal with these differences of opinion all the time. The best way to tackle it is to say to children that teachers respect what families believe, but crucially explain how things are done at school. Teachers must support pupils in the behaviours that we want to see in schools, and tell them that we will help them with it. If we do this, most children – even if what they believe at home is different – will say, “OK, that’s fine.”
Masks, like any other kind of uniform item, raise a question of style. What design of masks should be permitted at school? Would you, for example, allow a mask with a shocking design (such as a grinning skull) on it? Should the masks be in school colours only, or be purely surgical grade?
Once you decide the limits of unacceptability, then you can draw a line about acceptability. Can a mask be fashionable? Can it be pretty – or does it have to be plain to avoid the competitive arms race of style that can happen in some schools?
This introduces a socio-economic factor too. When a school stipulates that children must bring in another piece of equipment, they must make sure that kids can afford to do so. Schools have a responsibility to provide free PPE to members of their community that can’t afford their own – but must do so in a way that does not stigmatise them, as this can lead to other kinds of bad behaviour.
The easiest way around this would be to stipulate something that isn’t too difficult to source. For instance, children can be explicitly told to use disposable masks from the corner shop – or that the school will accept fabric ones from home, so long as they are of a plain design. It needs to be common and normal for bog-standard masks to be worn.
And it's important to reiterate that masks don’t protect the wearer – they protect other people from us. At school, the message needs to be constantly rammed home that masks are worn to keep everyone else safe.
Mask-wearing must be seen as a community endeavour, something which is part of our duty towards one another as human beings. In this way, they can even be a great teaching tool – one that demonstrates compassion, duty to the community, and personal responsibility.
Getting behaviour right at school has always been important – I believe it is core to everything that we as educators are trying to achieve. Today, in this new world, it has never been more important for schools to get behaviour right.
And yes, I know my call for masking up will ruffle some parental feathers. But to them, I would repeat, if we want children to receive an education, then wearing a mask might be a very small price to pay.
Tom Bennett , behaviour advisor to the Department for Education, was talking to Eleanor Doughty. His new book Running the Room: the Teacher's Guide to Behaviour is out now