Pupil protests across England and Wales spread by social media, experts say

<span>Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA</span>
Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

A wave of pupil protests that has taken headteachers by surprise in schools across England and Wales has disparate causes but is being spread via social media, experts have said.

The protests, which are being organised and shared on social media platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat, are often about strict uniform codes and rules restricting the use of toilets. Headteachers are particularly concerned because some protests have been supported by parents.

The disruptive behaviour, which has resulted in large numbers of pupils being given fixed-term exclusions and the involvement of the police in some cases, has been linked to a reported increase in challenging behaviour in schools since the disruption caused by the pandemic and lockdown.

Tom Bennett, the author of Running the Room: The Teacher’s Guide to Behaviour, and an adviser to the Department for Education, said however that he did not consider the protests to be genuine and there was no evidence of any link to lockdown or Covid restrictions. It was “mostly yobbish behaviour and disorder, jacked up by the kudos of filming it and putting it on TikTok”.

“It’s copycat behaviour,” he said, “with more in common with fashions and fads than a more complex cultural phenomenon or expression of protest. Schools should take a firm line on this, and warn students that if they participate they will experience a serious consequence.”

The flurry of protests began last week in schools in Southampton, Essex and Blackpool, among others, and has continued into this week with similar action in schools in Rhondda Cynon Taf in Wales and Cornwall.

Pupils at Rainford high school in St Helens, Merseyside, held protests after girls were threatened with suspension over the length of their skirts. Footage on social media shows hundreds of pupils gathered in the hallways of the school in protest at the strict policy. One video on TikTok has been viewed more than 1.5m times.

At Mountain Ash comprehensive in the Welsh town of that name, 34 pupils were excluded for a fixed period and an investigation is continuing after the fire alarm was set off repeatedly in a protest on Tuesday about the school toilets.

In a letter to parents and carers, the headteacher, Samantha Evans, said that while some of the pupils were planning a peaceful protest, others had engaged in “serious antisocial behaviour”, which resulted in the entire school being evacuated several times.

“We are also disappointed at some of the social media posts within our community, including posts by some of the parents of those involved, which have glorified and praised this appalling behaviour,” she said.

Elsewhere parents have expressed sympathy for their children’s objections over what they see as pointlessly strict behaviour and uniform codes. A mother of a pupil at Rainford high school said: “This is a repressive regime. Education seems very low down the list of priorities. They are all missing time in education because of skirt lengths.”

At Weston secondary school in Southampton, about 200 pupils took part in a protest over unisex toilets and restrictions on pupils leaving lessons to use toilets. One mother told the local paper: “I’m not being funny but the girls need their own toilets. Students should be allowed their freedom.”

Bennett’s view is the protests are just fig leaves to allow children to muck about and miss lessons. He said pupils were making unreasonable demands to leave classrooms when they feel like it, and in some cases have even demanded vaping rooms. “These are safeguarding issues we can’t give way on. If a student has a legitimate concern, then they raise it with their parents and teachers and student council reps, not bunk lessons and disrupt the calm of the school.”

As well as behaviour issues, schools are struggling to get attendance levels back to where they were before Covid, with more pupils absent than before the pandemic; some headteachers and school leaders are concerned there has been a “cultural shift” in attitudes towards school. Teachers say parents are more reluctant to send children to school and more resistant to efforts to encourage attendance.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said social media was an increasing problem for schools, with teachers recently targeted on TikTok by pupils making unfounded allegations of sexual misconduct and offensive insults, and schools frequently having to deal with the fallout from incidents on social media.

“The protests appear generally to be about rules on uniform and the use of toilets, although in a number of cases there hasn’t actually been any changes in the rules. In any event, if students are unhappy about a school rule they should raise this through the normal channels, rather than staging protests which are inevitably disruptive, and the last thing that schools need at any time, but particularly when they are facing such a range of pressures as is currently the case.”

He added: “There is a wider issue with an increase in challenging behaviour among some students since the Covid pandemic. It is difficult to categorically say why this might be the case but it does seem to be linked to the disruption that occurred to normal routines during the pandemic, increased levels of anxiety and depression among young people and their families, and the erosion of local support services for children and families over the past decade.”

Bennett was dismissive. “There’s no evidence it’s been inspired by lockdown or Covid restrictions. While many schoolkids have heard of this, a tiny, tiny number of schools saw disorder as a result. We don’t have a lot of evidence to suggest schools have become worse or better behaviourally since Covid. There isn’t a lot of data beyond anecdotal – despite confident claims both ways.”

TikTok said its safety teams were closely monitoring the school protest content to ensure it complied with community guidelines. A spokesperson said most of the content showed pupils engaging in peaceful demonstrations, which does not violate TikTok policies.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are concerned at the reports of disruption and will be in touch with all schools and local authorities to ensure they are supported at this time.

“We will always back headteachers to take the action required to maintain calm and supportive classroom environments as they are best placed to work with their teachers, parents, pupils and local communities when developing and implementing policies.”