Attractive presentation without ostentation

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Eye-catching exhibitions need not be beyond the reach of busy, economy-minded teachers.

As you put the finishing touches to a neat display of children's work, does it enter your head that you might be making a political statement? That this probably never occurs to you is a measure of how far politics and schooling have changed in a couple of decades, for in the late Sixties and early Seventies there were teachers who believed that attractive display was a bourgeois betrayal of the true progressive ideal.

If you find that hard to believe, then consider this contemptuous dismissal of good classroom display, written 20 years ago by a group of teachers at William Tyndale Junior, a London school which was then the focus of a national spat about progressive methods: "Working-class parents . . . became disturbed as their children's schools ceased to resemble their own homes and became more like middle-class ones . . . The contradictions have been papered over with triple-mounted pictures . . . This moribund prettiness, devoid of all motive except the transference of middle-class values to working-class children, has been embraced by many schools."

What these earnest folk were reacting to was that in most schools, those years were probably the golden age of display. It was almost as if "display" was a school subject in its own right, and heads would use the word exactly as they would use, say, "reading" in such pronouncements as "I would like you to take charge of Display" and "we are proud of the standard of Display here".

It was a time of great curving walls made of coloured corrugated card tacked to spare desks; of triple-mounted art work; of thick and expensive card backing and swatches of beautiful fabric. Teachers would spend hours on a special topic display, working in school until late at night, and the result would rival anything that a good museum could do today.

The trouble was, of course, that not only was it very expensive, but it all took up far too much time, with the obvious side-effect that displays stayed up too long. "It's lovely. Don't take it down until after parents' evening" became a standard response, and many teachers became adept at removing the snow from their Christmas displays. adding a few rabbits and changing the heading to "Our Easter Project".

What really put the brake on the fad for triple-mounting was not revolutionary zeal but pressure of work and rising costs. National curriculum, assessment, standard assessment tasks and year upon year of budget pressures enforced different classroom priorities.

Nevertheless, displays - perhaps less flamboyant than they once were - are still very much part of school life, particularly in the primary sector. Pinboards and walls in the entrance hall, corridors and classrooms will be covered with an attractive mixture of children's work, explanatory text and posters, and it will all have been done with flair and a practised eye.

In the words of Viv Randall, head of Colmore Infants in Birmingham: "We use display to make the environment lively and pleasant; to show children what is important to us, and to reflect to the local community what are our values and standards."

Most heads would agree with that. There are detailed debating points, of course. Do you just put up the best-looking work or should every child, as a matter of principle, have something on display? Should each piece on the wall be a fair copy, free of mistakes and teacher corrections? Each school works out its own approach, but the basic commitment is hardly ever questioned.

Finally, of course there is the Office for Standards in Education. Some schools, it seems, try extra hard with their displays when inspection is imminent. The evidence is, though, that good inspectors look beyond prettiness to see how the display relates to classroom learning. For this reason, what Viv Randall describes as "interactive displays where the children fill things in and answer questions" may well be appropriate.

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