'Gavin Williamson is right – pupils should sit in rows'

The education secretary seems to have advocated pupils sitting in rows – and Laura May Rowlands could not be happier

Laura May Rowlands

Why Gavin Williamson is right that pupils should sit in rows in the classroom

Education secretary Gavin Williamson must have meant rows, surely?

I mean, if he told MPs that all students should "face the front and pay attention" when schools finally reopen to all, he could have only meant seating children in rows. 

So I am taking this as an official endorsement that I am right: rows are best.  

I have tried many seating arrangements in the range of classrooms I have had over the years: groups of four, of eight; a complicated horseshoe pattern and even concentric circles.

None of them has worked.

The only configuration that has been a success is the humble row. In classrooms and subjects that allow it, rows are the optimum seating arrangement. They create a calm and purposeful atmosphere for the students and for the teachers.

And, as such, when I became a faculty leader a few years ago, I made it mandatory for classrooms to be set up in rows.

The benefits of seating pupils in rows in the classroom

Not everyone agrees, of course. Rows are about asserting some kind of Gradgrindian, child-hating control over our charges, according to some.

But actually, rows do the opposite of this. Here's how. 

1. Contact counts

Having rows means eye contact – that most basic of communication.

Why would you want to talk to the back of Eric’s head or the impressive array of earrings in Emma’s ears?

When I am explaining, questioning, modelling an answer or reading, I want to know that every person in the room can see me and hear me. The quickest way to check this is to see that they are all looking at me.

2. Equal expectations

I cringe when I remember diligently creating a table plan with all my special educational needs and disabilities students on one table, at the front. What a way to crush their confidence!

As Doug Lemov states in Teach Like a Champion, you want the intervention to be fast and invisible.

How was it invisible when I had quite literally singled some students out to sit under my nose? You know your students; you know who you need to go and speak to individually. Don’t make them feel singled out by using group configurations.

3. No groups, no discussion?

It is simply not true that discussion can't happen when the class is in rows.

Purposeful discussion is vital for learning. In the group configuration, it's much harder to spot when the discussion descends into chat. And having rows doesn’t mean you can’t have discussion groups. The simple solution – to have one row turn to face a row behind – is surely the optimum for discussion?

4. Ease of movement around the room

Look, I am a woman of ample hips. Slinking sinuously between complicated groupings and navigating the bags, chair legs, PE kits and unfathomably-long 15-year-old legs, just isn’t going to work.

Instead, I implore you to keep it simple. Minimise the risk of tripping over outstretched legs and spending the rest of the lesson with the ignominy of a grazed knee and wounded pride. Use rows.

 

So, bravo, Gavin Williamson. There are many things I might have done differently in your role over the past few months, but refuting the truth that students must "face the front and pay attention" is not one of them!

Laura May Rowlands is head of faculty for English and literacy at Woodlands Community College in Southampton

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Laura May Rowlands

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