Muck up day ‘chaos’: numbered sheep and phallic art

The Telegraph, 11.05.15, as 300 pupils are sent home following a raucous "muck up" day, Josie Gurney-Read looks at how other students have marked the end of school. HMC member Jenny Brown, head of St Albans High School for Girls is quoted.

Alarm clocks, numbered sheep and inappropriate garden art; for many GCSE and A-level leavers, the "muck up day" is a central part of pre-exam planning, especially for those in the independent sector.

For school leavers, the last day of term – known as muck up day – is the chance to "blow off steam", "get their own back on the school", or – slightly more altruistically – "give something back to the lower years". It is also, I'm reliably informed, one of the most anticipated days in the school calendar.

Popular in the UK, US and Australia, muck up day now seems to be a fairly wholesome celebration, involving fancy dress and large amounts of crepe paper. Streaking and localised chaos are kept to the minimum by the threat of exam exclusion.

But there's always a line that shouldn't be crossed, and, as one north London school demonstrated last week, that line can involve eggs and flour.

For pupils from the JFS campus in Kenton, their muck up day ended with 300 pupils being sent home. Police officers were even called to the scene when some students, wearing balaclavas, broke through a 7-feet security fence to enter the school grounds.

It's surprising, perhaps, that such an innocuous day – one that many schools mark with a quick assembly, a motivational speech and a nod to the 'best set of pupils the school has ever seen' (since last year) – can leave such a bad taste in the mouth. But the JFS incident certainly isn't isolated.

Tom, a muck up day survivor from a £20,000 per year boys' school, admits that his year were under "massive pressure to tone [muck up day] back".

"The previous year went completely mental," he says. "They all turned up in boiler suits and raided the school and freaked everyone out."

Ross, a key figure in his own Surrey school's muck up day, agrees that there are certain stories that act as warnings to event planners. "One guy in a previous year got expelled because he drove around the town centre and train station lobbing eggs at people; eventually crashing into a lamp post."

"In another year, students broke the legs off all the plastic chairs in the school, which wasn't very funny."

Ross says that the pressure to better the previous year is, in part, behind the desire to push the boundaries of acceptable.

"Apparently, the angriest our school ever got was when some students weed-killered a giant penis into the front lawn," he says. "They couldn't get it out, because when the grass grew back, it grew back a different colour. They had to dig up the whole lawn and replant it."

But when does a muck up day stop being a muck up day? At what point does funny stop being funny?

According to Jenny Brown, head teacher at St Albans High School for Girls,"if it's genuinely witty and genuinely inventive and not out to hurt, it's fine.

"Muck up days have always got the capacity to go wrong," she says. "Anything that is a carnivalesque indulgence, is just not acceptable. It's got to be outward looking, thoughtful, kind and witty – rather than aggressive and hurtful.

"There needs to be absolute trust between staff and students that everything is going to be done in the right way, then you can be relaxed and enjoy the day."

Among head teachers, reactions to muck up days seem to vary wildly – from outright encouragement, to renaming the event, to attempts to ban the day.

Ellie's grammar school decided to take the latter route, much to the anger of sixth formers.

"Ever since I was 11, I saw the sixth formers have their muck up days. There was an army theme once, and leavers plastered those little plastic figures all over the school and ran boot camp events throughout the week.

"I couldn't wait for our muck up day, but then we merged with the local boys' school and muck up days were banned – everyone was really bitter."

However, according to Ellie, it didn't stop students getting involved on the day, and potentially made the plans a whole lot worse.

"Some people attached a rape alarm to a helium balloon and set it off in the high ceiling section in the middle of the school," she says, "the caretakers took ages getting it down.

"There were also some people who snuck into school at night and wrote a derogatory comment in Latin on a banner and attached it to the front of the school, but that was taken down within the first hour of the school day."

Alternatively, Ross says that the £16,000 a year school he attended took a relaxed approach to the day. And, in fact, it seems to be this approach that has helped to somewhat take away the notoriety of the day.

At Ross' school, provided the buildings and grounds were treated with respect and the 'Three Ds' – including damage, disruption, disrepute – were taken into account, there wasn't much the teachers objected to.

"We pretty much made an entire music festival at our muck up day," he says. "We ordered around 100 sheets of security fencing, enough to go around a field, and had it delivered to the town centre the night before.

"Then at 5am, everyone assembled and took it into the school and set it up on a field. One guy brought along a diesel generator and the drama students brought a load of stage equipment which they had been smuggling out of the school over the previous weeks."

At Tom's school, sixth formers took advantage of the easily accessible styrofoam ceiling tiles: "Everyone in our year group brought alarm clocks into school, we put them in the ceilings and set them to go off at the same time in the middle of morning class, in every single classroom.

"All the alarms had different rings as well, so everyone was really confused. It was a fairly good natured way of pissing off lots of people."

Aside from the individual pranks, certain 'legendary' muck up day stories do the rounds. One in particular, the 'numbered sheep prank', seems to have been claimed by a number of schools.

"The rumours are that the 'sheep story' originated in my school," says Tom. "Three sheep were brought in and a number painted on each one – one, three and four. Apparently the teachers collected the sheep in and then spent the day searching for the missing number 'two'."

Back at St Albans and Jenny Brown says that, much like the leavers' book and hoodie, muck up days have become a permanent fixture for many schools, but plans are kept a "closely guarded secret" until the day.

"Last year, the theme was Alice in Wonderland and the girls transformed the whole lower corridor into a delightful Mad Hatter's tea party," she says.

"In the past I have seen ones that have gone wrong, but I suspect it was because schools and pupils were still finding their way.

"As schools and students have got more relaxed about the principals behind it, some of the really egregious stories that you hear, have become distant memories."

So what's the real appeal for students? Far from the dystopian scenes of Lindsay Anderson's film 'if ...' - which sees teachers mown down by disaffected machine gun wielding pupils – it seems to be the last chance students get to be rebellious.

"When you are at school you have this innate sense that you are forced into being there," says Tom, who suggest the main appeal is the chance to become, for a short while, "a mini revolutionary".

But has 'allowing' muck up day to happen taken away some of its fun? Can you really be rebellious if your rebellion has been authorise by higher powers? One thing is for sure; banning muck up day is one sure-fire way to secure its future.

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