Cry freedom and clear out all your clutter

16th January 2004 at 00:00
School for sale, the sign said. I awoke with a start. Then reality came flooding back: it wasn't my school which was on the market but my house.

Preparing the house for sale convinced me that my daughters watch far too much television. I had never heard of the dogma of minimalism, let alone experienced it first hand.

I thought my home was full of interesting artefacts, reflecting the rites of passage of our four children as they developed into adults. But my house was stripped bare: the attic was emptied, every corner and ledge was cleared and a succession of trips was made to the local tip.

As I lay in bed, my thoughts turned to school. Being a teacher and a quick learner, I immediately wanted to teach others about the dangers of materialism and the magic of minimalism. Why shouldn't others benefit from my new-found knowledge?

At the end of each year we order ever more skips to remove the accumulated debris which records the progress and achievements of another generation of pupils. Where does it all come from? The doctrine of minimalism in the homes of 36 staff and 430 pupils and their parents may have some part to play.

People are generous in donating once loved but then unwanted resources to an ever accommodating local school. As families mature, parents want to find good homes for toys, games, books, desks and chairs and clothes rather than dispatch them to the dustbin. Making way for the next wave of Christmas gifts also helps to fuel the numerous school fairs.

Removing old items is easy but costly for schools. Hiring skips is expensive and a school of Queensferry Primary's size may require six each year. There is no doubt a school could survive better with fewer but well targeted resources.

Most of the per capita allowance in a primary school is spent on language, maths and information technology resources, followed perhaps by art and design materials, which are both costly and consumable.

The assumption, wrongly, seems to be that each new reading scheme has to be better than the previous one and every few years you should replace your reading scheme. But how often do schools throw out the old one?

The best way to improve standards of reading is to improve teachers'

understanding of how to teach reading effectively. The resource is of lesser importance.

Whatever the subject, clearly thought out programmes should be resourced in such a way that everything is available and at hand, ready for the teacher and children to use. This works very well in science teaching in secondary schools, where the examination requirements define the programmes and technicians and teachers know exactly what is needed and when.

A year ago Queensferry Primary's pupil council voted to have depressing old desks and chairs replaced and enjoyed picking colours for the new ones.

Whenever I visit newly refurbished schools, the impact on staff and pupil morale is evident.

The headteacher at Gylemuir Primary in Edinburgh was a major influence on the beautiful and inspirational refurbishment of her school, investing a lot of time in research. She discussed the uses of colour with architects in Edinburgh and Italy and took into account the ideas about the influences different colours have on children's behaviour.

One of my teachers visited Ferryhill Primary, where she had worked previously, and was astonished to see what the enterprising headteacher there had achieved with the same funding we all receive. One particularly striking aspect is the golden room, where teachers take pupils for special awards, a quiet time or for IT work. It is tastefully decorated in yellow tones with light-coloured furniture and - you've guessed it - has a minimalist look. You actually feel a calming effect as you walk in.

Something I tried at my school was to walk around as a new parent might and look at everything with fresh eyes, beginning at the school gate, and then I asked all my staff to do the same. We made easy changes first, such as replacing old nursery chairs with sets of differently coloured ones. That made an impact quickly. We looked for high quality furniture and planned what we could afford to do in the next financial year.

Parting with old textbooks and convincing teachers to empty classroom cupboards can be more difficult. The acid test is how many items which are thrown out are ever looked for again? In our case the answer has been none.

A classroom assistant emptied out the contents of a walk-in cupboard on to tables in a shared area and only essential items went back. That worked very well.

We are at the start of a new year again, so take heart, take stock, try to become a minimalist and delight your cleaners.

Sheilah Jackson is headteacher of Queensferry Primary in Edinburghwww.queensferry-ps.edin.sch.ukIf you have any comments, e-mail

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