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Is it me, or is circle time just loopy?

So, Sir Jim Rose isn't a fan of circle time. Well, I have to admit, I'm with him on this one, though I'll probably get shot down for heresy. Although it is intended as a classroom forum for children to share views and concerns, I don't think it offers all the benefits its disciples like to claim.

Education is littered with failed fashions. Even those that have had relevance to primary education have often been misinterpreted. The "real books" fiasco of the 1980s, for example, started out as a worthwhile idea. A talented class teacher, disenchanted with the turgid text of many reading schemes, designed one of her own using only good quality children's books.

She spent hours grading them to ensure children would progress at their own pace, but absorb worthwhile literature at the same time. Her children made such rapid progress the method was hailed as a reading panacea, and inspectors instructed schools to throw out their reading schemes and buy "real books" instead, failing to appreciate that simply exposing children to decent books wouldn't guarantee reading success. It became known as "reading by osmosis". And failed.

All sorts of successes are claimed for circle time in building "the balanced child", and teaching practice students invariably incorporate it into their weekly routine. The children sit in a circle performing various activities, such as saying three nice things about the person on their left, or listening to Tommy explaining why he felt it necessary to give Susan a thump at breaktime, or talking about how everyone feels because somebody has written "bum" on a display in the maths corner.

Now this is all well and good, but why was it necessary to invent circle time for it? Surely, one of the qualities of really capable class teachers is the trusting empathy they should be able to achieve with their children? Within a short time they should know them all thoroughly and the children should feel safe, interested and comfortable in the environment provided for them.

The children should also know that their teacher will find time to help them, encourage them, laugh with them, and chat with them individually outside lesson time when there is a need for it. They should feel a real sense of belonging and identity, and want to share their values because an exceptional teacher is still the strongest of role models.

And call me cynical if you like, but I'm a little suspicious of the writers who know a good thing when they see one and offer books on every shade and variation of circle time. I found six last Saturday while rummaging through the education section of a bookshop, and I was fascinated by the warm-up activities one of them described. "Start today's circle time by holding hands, and passing a 'squeeze' round the circle," it said. Frankly, that would rate quite highly on my scale of pointless classroom activities.

Consultants, of course, have also latched on to the potential gold mine. "Solve your classroom behaviour problems," said a leaflet on my desk recently. "Attend our course on bubble time, an advanced version of circle time." I wondered whether you had to take along your own flannel and soap.

I've even seen a circle time training video, in which a lunchtime supervisor was summoned to the school council circle and required to sit cross-legged on the carpet while she explained how she felt about the rudeness she was experiencing from the children. The poor lady looked very embarrassed and the headteacher simply looked stressed.

Perhaps if she'd had a firmer grip on the school the children wouldn't have been rude in the first place.

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.


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