Whistle

Andy Mattison

When I was appointed as head of William Booth School, teachers had to collect children from the playground three times a  day - at the end of the lunch break, and morning and afternoon 'playtime'.

This was the  supposed to be the normal procedure:

  1. The teacher on duty blew a whistle. The children stood still.
  2. The teacher blew a second whistle. The children went to line up neatly in class groups.
  3. The class teacher led the group back into class in a quiet and orderly fashion.

Alas, the practice didn't quite match the theory. Apart from the problem of what to do if a teacher was not there to collect children (some teachers were not entirely scrupulous in their timekeeping), in practice there was often a considerable gap between the two whistles, while those children gloriously ignoring the injunction to stand still were hounded, shouted at and implored to comply. By the time they were ready, others had got bored and started to wander around again themselves. Cue more shouts, threats etc. The second whistle would mark a mad dash for places in the line, because for some reason it was important to be at the front. Cue arguments and shoving matches, all the way back to class, and a frequently stressful and disjointed start to the next session.

I hope that anyone considering this would think: what's the point of the two whistles? What does making the kids stand still achieve? But there are wider and more important questions: Why do children need to line up? Why does the line need to be neat? Why do teachers need to come and collect children? This issue could be examined in terms of efficiency: Is it worth the hassle? Does it contribute to the smooth running of things? (On these grounds it was easy to see that the first whistle was not just superfluous but actually a waste of time and cause of problems.)? It could also be scrutinised from the viewpoint of natural rights, or justice:? why should a group of people be compelled to line up neatly? Is this just a symbol of the exercise of power? (Note how this always seems to feature in films featuring POW camps).

Of course, the first proposition can only really be tested by trying something different. We are very often hugely reluctant to try something different, because of the hassle, the risk of failure and the sense that maybe it's a bit radical. But do we acknowledge that what we are currently doing is as much of an experiment, or based on untested propositions? Why are teachers not made to line up at the staff room door at the end of lunchtime?

Changing the end-of-playtime arrangements was one of the very first things we did, based on the latter (human-rights) viewpoint of thinking that we shouldn't make children line up and wait to be led back into school unless there was a very good reason (like a fire drill) to do so. We just told the children that playtime was over (giving a few minutes advance warning to try to avoid the just-another-minute-to-score-another-goal syndrome), at which point they had to go back inside, where staff were waiting for them in the classrooms. Lo and behold, they did come back inside, and with much less hassle and fewer arguments. This did not solve the problem of arguments and fights occurring outside, and the need to try to resolve issues, disputes and upsets at the start of the next session, but the transitions were undoubtedly easier and much more efficient.

We extended this approach to other occasions of enforced 'lining-up', such as general going to and fro as a class group,  for instance for assembly. On a specific occasion when it might be desirable to line up (eg on a trip out of school where we needed to count heads) our own rule became to make sure that this reason was explicitly explained to children.

We found that doing away with routine lining-up was an overwhelming success: there was less time wasted, there was less hassle, there were fewer problems to deal with, and we had happier kids with a little more control over their lives in school.

 

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