Faced with the prospects of another training day on the role of the form tutor or preparing for senior management, some teachers at Birley School, Sheffield, voted with their feet. We decided it might be more fun to spend an Inset day looking at the application of Feng Shui (pronounced "Fung Shoy") to school organisation.
Feng Shui is an ancient Chinese way of helping individuals relate more comfortably to their environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that organisations can improve their effectiveness by starting to care for the working conditions of their employees by looking at office layout.
Symbolism and the principle of polarity - the notion of yin and yang - is central to Feng Shui (words meaning wind and water). The aim is to achieve harmony, which is described in the ancient aphorism: "The virtuous delight in the mountains and hills; the wise in rivers and lakes."
I led the course on the basis that I had been to China, talked with practitioners of Feng Shui and had read a book recommended in a Norwich Chinese craft shop entitled Feng Shui Made Easy.
The session began with suitable atmospherics - a waft of incense, authentic Chinese tapes and the serving of hot croissants and freshly filtered coffee. Teachers need cossetting too.
The basic principles of Feng Shui in the home were discussed - avoid clutter, fill corners, avoid sitting with your back to doors and make water a design feature. Colours represent certain characteristics - black stands for money and power; red and purple are the most auspicious. In the garden there should be ponds, meandering paths and a stone dragon at the front to stop luck running out.
Plant chrysanthemums for a life of ease and enjoyment. Magnolias make women sweeter and peonies allegedly encourage the male libido!
From this introduction we looked at the workplace organisation. School staffrooms have a richly deserved reputation for being deeply squalid places - cluttered with papers, unwashed cups and tatty furniture. Birley was no exception so we applied what we had learnt in order to "feng shui" the room. Luckily most staff were out on other courses and there was a week's half term breathing space to follow.
In a spirit of almost anarchic enthusiasm the clutter of folders and abandoned mugs were removed. We looked critically at the regimented rows of chairs and threw out the most shabby and worn. To discourage departmental cliques, the remaining chairs were rearranged in a more fluid shape of a figure of eight; work tables were put in a zigzag shape facing a window. More pot plants appeared - drooping fig trees are recommended. You should match one big pot plant to every electrical item.
Daffodils - for good fortune - appeared after the holiday, and staff reactions have been favourable. The place feels less tense but the bad energy rushing through needs a banner and some wind chimes to deflect it.
In fact, Birley School does have a model environment in an open quadrangle designed as a memorial to a former member of staff which is intended as a quiet, reflective area to play chess, sit, and talk.
The course finished by looking at management strategies for improving environmental awareness. Private companies have developed meeting pods - areas for staff to meet informally; more works of art; hot desking to discourage hierarchical offices; fountains and lots of greenery.
Schools are reluctant to go this far but if the Office for Standards in Education were to take this on as part of their remit perhaps change would follow. Much of Feng Shui is based on common sense - people work better if their surroundings are pleasant. Teachers do seem reluctant to tidy up their patch but at Birley we are making a start.
Nick Tyldesley is head of history at Birley School, Sheffield