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Season of glitter and merry hell

The wisdom of Henry Walpole

At the start-of-year staff meeting, a newly qualified teacher will usually chirrup something like: "What are we doing in numeracy for the last week of term?" The poor unfortunate then has to listen to the head mumbling about "end of term reviews" and "formative assessment" while trying to make herself heard above sniggering staff.

Christmas in primary schools is a migraine-inducing rollercoaster of glitter, atonal singing, tears and terrible CDs. There is no point trying to work. Even the most experienced teacher can't seamlessly steer a class from a play rehearsal, directed by a manic woman with flashing Santa earrings, to a literacy lesson on the class layered target.

So how to fill the time? Junior teachers favour stacks of word-searches, so the line of teaching assistants on "special jobs" at the photocopier in Christmas week looks like a food queue in a UN refugee camp - but with less chance of meeting Bono. You're more likely to meet a harried-looking photocopier engineer wondering why they always break down at this time of year.

Infant teachers favour any activity involving glue, shiny paper, paint and sequins. Fifty minutes in, anarchy rules, and the teacher suddenly realises she forgot to get her class to don aprons. It's probably time to ask the nursery nurse to dismiss the class and explain to parents why their children look like giant glue-sticks that have been rolled down the aisles of the local Hobbycraft.

As the week wears on, teachers become increasingly desperate. After tidying pupils' trays, some make the mistake of asking children to have a go at the pile of paper groaning atop their own desk. Before long, your "difficult" pupils will be reading out embarrassing absence notes, throwing the contents of your handbag around the room ("Tampax Tennis"), and browsing lewd text messages sent by your boyfriend.

Some more experienced teachers present pupils with an open-ended task such as designing a CD cover or a large map of a mystical land. It's good to offer prizes, but best not be too specific. "You will win the end-of-term presents I receive from you, which look like they've come from a market stall" will probably not spur them on. The best Christmas time-fillers are simple, repetitive and soothing. One teacher I worked with got children to rule endless lines on a piece of paper, then colour in the patterns carefully. For three days. At the end, I'm not sure the children had ticked off any national curriculum objectives, but every time they closed their eyes they went on a psychedelic journey that surely warned them off drugs for life.

Happy Christmas to you all, and may you get to the staffroom Celebrations tin before there are only Topics left.

More from Henry on January 5

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