Ringing the changes

Paul Noble

Paul Noble digs below the cream topping and discovers some solid advice in a new book on Circle Time.

Jenny Mosley's circles are common in the West Country where I work. They're not of the crop or magic variety, but simply the physical arrangements when children are encouraged to talk openly and personally.

Enthusiasts for the technique do sometimes treat "circle time" as if it had mystical qualities - listening to Jenny Mosley's disciples can be a bit like eavesdropping on Jehovah's Witnesses; the talk is earnest and intense and littered with strangely incomprehensible phrases.

But Circle Time is, in fact, very simple; it is all about listening. By the systematic use of games and other stratagems, the approach ensures that everyone in a classroom has a voice that is properly heard.

Underpinning the technique is a belief in the classroom as a democratic place where all children should be valued equally. Circle Time's worth lies in its aim to create a positive school ethos by encouraging appropriate behaviour and forestalling the kind of problems that prevent teachers from reaching first base with the national curriculum. Achieving these aims (and there are plenty of people prepared to endorse the efficacy of the technique, including no less a figure than Lord Elton) is through working on low pupil self-esteem.

In the open forum that constitutes a circle, problems and fears are discussed, moral and practical issues tackled - name-calling, bullying, racism - both to create a sound ethos in the classroom and school and to work on the concerns of individuals. Special "bubble times" are reserved for the raising of personal or private matters one-to-one. Many primary teachers cope with these matters perfectly well without resorting to the Circle Time method, although Jenny Mosley and the training group that backs her (Turn Your School Round Consultancies) would probably argue that even here circles would be useful.

Jenny Mosley has built the strategies on many years of teaching experience and clearly they can be made to work in a positive way, particularly in classrooms where problems are severe. But some teachers may find them difficult to handle. Perhaps they go too far at times - not everyone will feel comfortable if (and it can happen) they find themselves involved in the emotional equivalent of open-heart surgery.

The book itself is a strange concoction, in part splendidly practical, in part philosophical in a home-spun sort of way. It can also be somewhat twee and occasionally it gushes.

If Barbara Cartland wrote a maintenance manual for the Ford Escort it might come out something like this. There are two pages of endorsements and a five-page acknowledgement chapter where the "lovely" schools that Jenny Mosley has worked in are thanked, as is her editor ("lovely" again), and so on. Read on and you will learn to "visit the wells" - emotional, creative, etc; avoid the "box that pulsates with guilt"; develop "bubble time"; enjoy "golden moments"; and (my own favourite) negotiate "TATTS". The latter are Tiny Achievable Tickable Targets, which are ways of guaranteeing a child with low esteem attains some daily success - they are clearly far more sensible than they sound.

But get beyond the cream topping, and there is tasty substance. You will learn how to pass the conch (or other artefact) to indicate that you have the floor during Circle Time, and acquire lots of fun strategies for getting the most out of the Circle meetings. Some are straightforward like Chinese Whispers and Word Game, others more interestingly are marketed as Dracula, Zoom and Eek; and Electric Squeeze.

The book is not "your essential guide to enhancing self-esteem, and self-discipline and positive relationships" as it proclaims, but it is worth a look. Be prepared for the cream topping, however.

Paul Noble is headteacher of Blunsdon St Andrew Primary School, Wiltshire.

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