9 – Rows and rows

After three month’s of on-line teaching, supporting students and their families, formulating centre assessment GCSE and A Level grades, thinking about a catch-up curriculum for those who have not been able to engage and formulating procedures for a safe return to school, this is the latest thinking from the Minister for Education to assist teachers.

Let’s be charitable and assume that Mr Williamson is stressing that teachers are professionals with voices that must be heard. They are in the best position to help students overcome the challenges of learning remotely over the past three months, away from friends and the usual learning routines, with varying levels of success and hugely different home lives, some untouched by Coronavirus and others suffering trauma of one kind or another. Teachers must be listened to and the way to do this is ……to rearrange the classroom furniture.

On this he may have a point. Any teacher whose classroom discipline is anything other than first rate will tell you that rows can engender a calmer atmosphere, affording fewer opportunities for low-level disruption and students being off task. If you have ample hips then movement around the room is easier, discussion can still take place and everyone can see the board. Equally, anyone who has spent time with young people will tell you that if they don’t want to listen, the shape and orientation of the classroom furniture matters little. His comments on rows started a bit of a storm and not a few blogposts on social media platforms, not least because it is a simple sound bite designed to show the Tory MPs to whom he was speaking that he’s tough on low level disruption  and that teachers have an easy job to sort it out. If teaching was as simple as shifting the furniture to get pupil attention there wouldn’t be so many teachers leaving the profession. Mr Williamson must know that. Mustn’t he? It’s just the other stuff is harder to fix. 

During the thirty years since I first set foot inside a classroom as a trainee teacher I have taught in rooms with desks in rows and in groups, in drama studios where there were no desks at all and even outside in the forest or school garden. I even tried out the ‘horseshoe of doom’ once, misguidedly thinking that this would encourage erudite discussion. In fact it just made it difficult to move around the room whilst providing ample opportunity for throwing bits of paper across the divide. When I shared a classroom and had to commute between sites half a mile apart, turning up at the same time – or later – than the students,  I inherited someone else’s layout – often different on consecutive days. It made me a more resourceful teacher and an advocate for effective partnerships. Teaching is a team sport, after all. Changing the layout of your room is a tiny part of engaging students who have missed out on a sizeable proportion of this year’s face to face teaching. There are more effective strategies and the common denominator is partnership.

Children and young people need

  • proper partnerships between parents and teachers, built on trust and mutual understanding of the difficulties faced on both sides
  • a safe classroom environment where children feel valued, clear routines are respected and expectations are reinforced by senior managers
  • an education secretary who works with the teaching profession, listens to their concerns and values their professionalism

Until this happens, where you put your desks is of little consequence.