The School Bell: A Necessary Evil?

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Alarm Bell

Nick Burton

Since qualifying as a Primary Teacher, Nick has held a number of teaching positions in the UK. He recently moved to Scotland and is currently working in Midlothian. He loves finding new ways to deliver lessons and use educational spaces in ways that best suit...
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Do we really need a school bell?

We’ve all seen the cliché-filled school scene that features in most American dramas or sitcoms. You know the one. It’s where children are sitting at individual desks scrolling through their phones and throwing scrunched up notes in front of a teacher who apparently has no control over their students. The bell rings, prompting the children to surge towards the exit.

Despite their best effort, with screeches of “The bell is for me, not for you!” the teacher gives up and the students run out of school jubilantly, throwing their notes in the air.

The school bell is a nuisance

Reality paints a very different picture. For one, the bell should never prompt a mass exodus from the classroom. Furthermore, I’m beginning to believe that the bell should be confined to the schools of the past. The school bell is loud, obtrusive and for some children, downright scary.

The modern state school has to cater for all children. Some youngsters, particularly autistic children, hate – and fear – loud unexpected noises. I have seen children go into crisis because they have been standing near to the bell when it rings. And boy does it ring. It has startled me on a number of occasions.

As a teacher, I have lost count of the number of times a crucial part of my plenary has been interrupted by the bell and subsequent distraction of the pupils in my class. Granted, some schools programme their bells to ring only at the beginning and end of the day, but most have it ringing at the beginning and end of every period.

The case for bell-free schools

I am sure I am not just speaking for myself when I say that telling the time is one of the most complicated concepts to teach. This can be partly explained by the varying levels of clock-related tuition children receive from home, rendering traditional ability groupings completely futile. Some children are never taught how to read time by their parents.

Imagine if every school day embedded children’s understanding of time. Currently, the children don’t have to read the time at all during the day, because the timetable is punctuated by the bell. Children would have to start reading their watches (if they have one) to tell when to go back to class after breaks and to remind their teacher how long it is until school finishes.

Moreover, it would help to build a more inclusive and peaceful environment for those who find the school bell terrifying. If the bell really is for teachers, there is an even more compelling case to get rid of it.

Does our profession really have such low intelligence that we cannot read a clock?

What do you think? Is your school bell a nuisance? Do you agree that it robs children of an important opportunity to embed their knowledge of time?

10 thoughts on “The School Bell: A Necessary Evil?

  1. My large High School (1650 students) got rid of bells – well it was a loud beep!. After a short period of adjustment, no problem. The only sound was at the start of the day, to tell students outside the building it was time to come into the building.

  2. Worked in 2 schools where there were only start and end of day bells. Worked perfectly well and gave teachers far more ownership of teaching time.

  3. I have just moved to a school with no bells. It took a bit of getting used to, but I quite like it now. No bells means you can finish your lesson as you choose to, without the interruption of the bell, there is less of a crush in the corridors as some classes finish slightly earlier or slightly later, and, yes, pupils actually use the clock to check the time!

  4. Currently work in a school with a light, not a bell. Worked at other schools with lights as well. The light is unobtrusive and allows me to see I need to wrap it up. Most teachers release their students, not allowing the light to release the students. One school I worked in had no passing time, bell, or light. We were just supposed to intrinsically know how much passing time to give kids. Lessons were very 55 minutes. Some teachers released their students with one minute to pass, others released 10 min, or no minutes. It was chaos. Kids learned to play the system which resulted in you having to wait 5-10 minutes until a critical mass showed up to start class.

  5. I work in a local authority nursery with a few ASD children our school uses a bell system, looking to do away with this as they have major sensory issues any advice?
    Caroline Reid

  6. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild variant of autism, and for many years as a kid I was extremely scared of moving to secondary school due to the bells that I believed they all had. As it turned out, my local secondary school didn’t use them (the bells in the building were only used as fire alarms, they didn’t sound at all during the day otherwise), and according to other former students my school never had them. From what the oldest serving staff there told me while I was at it, the “no bells” policy that my school had since opening in the 1980s was originally intended to encourage students to check the time by themselves, however I feel that in practice the policy was ahead of its time and would have been a lifesaver for any mildly autistic student like myself living in my area in the 1980s or 1990s.

    When I was in Y10/11 a few years ago (c.2015), I emailed all the other secondary schools in my town (which at the time had roughly 11 secondary schools, many of them built in recent decades) about whether or not they used bells during the day, and of the half that got back to me, one or two of them said that they used spoken announcement systems at the end of breaks instead, which I consider the lesser of two evils, while most of the ones that didn’t get back are ones that I suspect did use them. Only one of the schools that got back to me said that they used bells throughout the day.

    At a time when the government is trying to force headteachers to adopt stricter policies regarding discipline, I feel that schools really need to take action against things that don’t belong in a supposedly friendly or calming environment, most notably the bell, which I luckily never had to hear outside of fire drills but which is likely still scaring students at many schools.

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