Make room for learning

26th January 2007 at 00:00
Flexible seating arrangements help create an environment where pupils will thrive, finds Gerald Haigh

How is your classroom set out? Where do the children sit? And who decides who they sit next to? Flexibility seems to be the key in today's classrooms - it is out with fixed places and in with literacy places, maths places and even home places.

"How you sit the children often varies from lesson to lesson," says Greg Marsden, head of Lisle Marsden C of E Primary in Grimsby. "It's down to what's best for the majority of children within a group at a particular time."

It's an approach, he says, that starts in key stage 1. "Because of the nature of the foundation stage and KS1 curriculum, and the numbers of support staff, you get small working groups and children moving from one task to another. It's all highly organised, but when it comes to who sits with who, that's not an issue.

"Then this approach carries on into KS2. It's very different from when we were at school."

Kae McSweeney, head of Harrington Hill Primary in Hackney, east London, also emphasises movement and flexibility. "All my children and staff have seating that varies," she says.

"The teacher will say, 'literacy places, please' or 'maths places, please'.

And then, in the afternoon, for cross-curricular work we have what we call 'home places'. There's a lot of informal talk then, and as we have a lot of children with English as an additional language we like to surround them with good language role models."

There are also other dynamics at work. "Tables are small, chairs are light, and storage units are whizzed around on castors," says Greg. "Children are involved in this movement from an early age and it's very good for them.

"If you have a child with low self-esteem, you sit them with a couple who can build them up. A lot of thought goes into it - far more than when I was at school."

A consistent advocate of flexible seating arrangements is Professor Nigel Hastings of Nottingham Trent University, the author - along with Karen Chantrey Wood - of Reorganising Primary Classroom Learning (Open University Press, 2002). He argues that the way a classroom is set out is more influential on children's learning than we generally recognise.

For example, numerous studies and reports show that the standard primary inward-facing small-group layout is inconsistent with the fact that most work is individual rather than collaborative.

"It's not that one way or another way is essentially right," says Professor Hastings. "Rather, it's about choosing the best way of holding the children's attention."

SEATING PLAN

Where your children sit (this includes "on the carpet" sessions) is a professional decision, not to be left to random choice or parental requests.

* Be flexible. Have more than one standard pattern, and involve the children in moving the furniture.

* Try to achieve a horseshoe or hollow square for whole-class teaching.

* Keep resources mobile and near to the children who need them.

* Consider the role of your teaching assistants when you fix your seating - don't leave them to be slotted in as an afterthought.

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