Eyes front, atten-shun!

9th November 2012 at 00:00

Something has happened to seating plans. Once upon a time a seating plan was a hastily scribbled piece of A4 paper on which you recorded kids' names, but nowadays they have developed a gravitas beyond all previous recognition. Just as we transformed our tired old gardens with Italian pots, pine decking and stainless steel water features, we are now subjecting tatty old seating plans to similar grand designs. Indeed, some of them are so ambitious in scale and construction that Kevin McCloud has been hanging around with a Channel 4 crew, desperate to deliver an arse-licking eulogy on their architectural merits.

These changes, of course, were driven by Ofsted. Teachers are a savvy bunch, and it didn't take us long to realise we could earn Ofsted brownie points by revamping our seating plans to include evidence of personalised learning. Hence our plans now show irrefutable proof of differentiation for ability (Rebecca Poad - support with extra spellings; Rebecca Black - allow 10 minutes' extra reading time) rather than the usual differentiation by appearance (Rebecca P. - the fat one; Rebecca B. - wears specs).

Such pimped-up annotated seating plans are seen as fast-track boarding passes into the Stage 1 Teaching Competencies Lounge, the rationale being that if you write down every piece of information you have on a pupil - their key stage 2 levels, end-of-year assessments and the last time they had nits - you can prove to the man in black that you are "acutely aware of their capabilities and of their prior learning". In truth, you know very little about their real attainment because you've been so busy colour-coding their vital data that you haven't yet seen their books.

The rationale behind where we seat the kids is another issue for debate. Nothing divides educationalists so much as how we arrange kids' desks. If we discount the frankly preposterous idea of the open-ended horseshoe, largely advocated by those who spent their childhoods kissing ponies, then there are two conflicting schools of thought: those who defend desks in rows and those who swear by tables.

I've always been a rows person myself. In fact, the more my classroom looks like a prison, the happier I will be. Ideally, I'd like it to resemble a still from the Nuremberg Rallies, with row upon row of attentive pupils, facing the front and saluting the air with the "quiet signal", while their desks march across the room with unwavering military precision. While other teachers promote "tangible buzz", I prefer abject fear. I believe that if you can instil enough terror at the start of the lesson, you're less likely to have to squander the rest of your life scouring the yard for the kids who default on handing in homework.

Besides which, putting children in rows has a sound pedagogical basis. Until every one of my pupils can write "a lot" as two separate words, I believe they are better off looking at me for instruction than one another. However, in my school I'm in the minority. In a frantic desire to encourage higher levels of dialogue and pupil interaction, most staff organise their pupils into groups of four, and then take the ensuing incessant chatter as evidence of success. This shouldn't surprise me, given that I teach at a faith school. If you can believe that communion wine transubstantiates into the blood of Christ then believing that your rowdy Year 10 lads are actively discussing a sonnet must be a doddle.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England. @AnnethropeMs.

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