In response to recent heated debates over the use of silent corridors in schools, Tom Bennett wonders what all the fuss is about

A nation erupted as it was revealed last week that a school had been found guilty of child torture on a systematic scale last seen in the poorhouses of Oliver Twist. Please be seated and muffle your gasp with a clenched knuckle as I reveal that schools have been forcing children as young as five to… to be quiet for short periods of time. I know, right?

This is, of course, the column-guzzling non-story that chewed up social media for the first half of half term, because nature abhors a vacuum and people in education aren’t happy unless they’re killing each other over who loves children most. A school recently endured the fury of top-notch local reporting as it was revealed they expected their students to walk between lessons in complete silence. It’s unusual, I’ll grant that, but not entirely uncommon. I’ve seen lots of schools do this, or something near it. I suppose if you don’t get into many schools this seems odd, but so does mayonnaise on French fries until you go to Amsterdam.

For a start, there are precedents for this everywhere, in and out of school: libraries; silent reading in form time; assemblies; two-minute silences; funerals, often at such length as to make a few minutes in a corridor seem like a second. In all these scenarios, it either signifies the cultural importance of listening, or serves some practical purpose. Either way, it’s not some frightening abomination of practice.

People in education aren’t happy unless they’re killing each other over who loves children most

Second, what purpose might this serve? It’s normally primarily used to create order in corridors where order might be needed. It surprises many who don’t work in challenging schools to learn that public spaces can often be boisterous, chaotic places, if ungoverned. As one of the hardest parts of the school to supervise, they can become the theatre of some very unpleasant behaviour: bullying, violence and theft at the top end of the spectrum, and loafing, tardiness and work avoidance at the lower. I say “can”.

Most corridors are probably quite civil. But what if they aren’t? What if the 100 winding metres from science to geography is a green mile of dead men walking? What if corridors are full of, not joyful laughter of happy children, giggling and chatting about Ohm’s Law, but dread? What if the giggling is always about you? Having a flat rule that corridors should be silent creates an easily understood norm that dissolves and dilutes that toxicity. Lesson changeovers are expedited, and students stretch their legs and get back to learning.

Third, what do students and teachers say about it, as opposed to armchair educationalists? It’s telling how many teachers say how refreshing quiet spaces are, and what a difference it makes to the public space of the school. I’ve never spoken to a pupil who, once used to it, gave a damn about what agitates so many people fretting about children’s rights to do as they please, whenever they like.

One last, very important caveat: I’m not married to the idea of silent corridors. I don’t think every school needs to have them. Schools should be able to decide if they want silence, or a murmur, or barbershop choirs humming the Circle of Life. That’s the point: I think they are one way of achieving the goals schools say they have.

What’s curious is that there are so many people who want to impose their vision of how a school should work. This storm in an H-Block reveals an interesting truth about the state of our professional discourse, and how well we cope with a plurality of ideas about a school’s right to run itself. As long as schools do things we find ideologically pleasing, they are allowed to proceed without comment. But if they try to implement strategies not to our taste, God forgive them. It’s time to get behind the schools trying to change the world, get the hell out of their way and let them do their job. They deserve medals, not a public roasting.