* Some new schools are being built without a designated staffroom
* Some independent school staffrooms have a bar
* The Teacher Support Network claims teachers are afraid to be seen relaxing in the staffroom
* Research has shown that gossiping can be good for us
* Many teachers say they get more support from online staffrooms than from the real thing in school
* In a survey of teachers' staffroom priorities, a clean kitchen area was ranked more important than quiet workspace or an efficient photocopier
It may be the smallest, grimiest room in school, but it's where all the best gossip is. It's a haven from prying pupils, a place to relax; a friendly meeting place for informal conversations and witty banter. But is this your staffroom? With increasing pressure on time and, in secondary schools, department rooms often boasting better kettles, research shows that the staffroom can be the least used room in the school. So does it matter if everyone's finding somewhere else to go? Many experts say it does, and that taking a fresh look at how the staffroom works can bring wider benefits than a boost for the milk kitty.
Up the stairs, second door on the right...
Whether it's upstairs in a dark corner, at the far end of school, or at the heart of the building, location can be one of the most important factors in deciding whether the staffroom is a social centre or a giant junk-mail bin.
With breaks and lunch hours whittled away to a minimum, any staffroom that isn't easily accessible, comfortable and practical is likely to be shunned.
But even the most desirable location may not be enough to get staff through the door. A study published in 2000 by Jane McGregor at the Open University showed that if the staffroom isn't of a reasonable standard and well equipped, most teachers will find a more pleasant alternative. The research also found that a clean kitchen area came top of teachers' wishlists, followed by a quiet workspace with good computers, telephone links and a photocopier.
But, for many staff, such facilities are a distant dream. "Our staffroom is barely adequate - it's scruffy, untidy and cluttered," says a primary school teacher from Nottinghamshire. "The area around the kettle is downright unpleasant and the toilets are dreadful."
Time for a facelift
Refurbishing the staffroom often comes a long way down budget priorities.
But because a cramped and dirty space sends out bad messages about the way staff are valued, many experts recommend moving it up the list. School Works is an independent company, funded by the Department for Education and Skills, which has worked with new-build and refurbished schools to design effective staffroom spaces. Its policy is always to allow staff to have a say in the new-look designs. "Workforce issues go hand in hand with educational delivery," explains managing director Sharon Wright. "People need to feel valued and included. Then, even if they don't like the end product they'll understand why it's that way. And that can be helpful for wider school issues."
Some new schools are being built without staffrooms, the idea being that departmental bases or "open learning" spaces will be shared by staff and students. The advantage on a large site is that staff don't waste time trekking to a central location. The downside is that it's easy for colleagues in other parts of the school to become strangers. The process of redesigning staff spaces is a tricky one, and varies with the needs of individual schools, but experts agree that the key is detailed discussion as early as possible so that nothing, and no one, is forgotten.
Some decisions are practical: is the space just for socialising or for work as well? And if it's for both, is it big enough to allow for a quiet working area? Others are more about the identity of the school. Do you want a collegiate atmosphere to encourage staff to spend time together? (Some independent school staffrooms even have a drinks bar for those long winter evenings.) Or should staffrooms be private spaces away from prying pupil eyes? A visible staffroom can help with managing behaviour.
Staffrooms can be egalitarian, with everyone from the catering staff to the caretaker made welcome; or strictly teachers only. And then there's the question of whether pupils are encouraged to knock on the door, or whether there's a do-not-disturb policy.
Sharon Wright suggests monitoring use to obtain detailed information on how the staffroom is being used and what would make it more successful. And not being afraid to make changes. "It needs to be an ongoing critical process.
Life changes; schools move on. You need to be questioning what you've got and if it's what you need now."
Remember, too, that a staffroom needn't just be a physical space; it can also be a political concept. Many schools have active staff associations, with elected leaders who call meetings to discuss school issues, then report back to senior management. There may be a social secretary responsible for trips to the pub, theatre or cinema. But the room itself still matters; a busy staffroom makes out-of-hours socialising more likely, which in turn encourages use of the staffroom.
That's my seat!
Be aware that any changes you make to the physical layout may disrupt all kinds of long-held territories. Research by Dr Carrie Paechter, from Goldsmiths College, London, has found that staff are adept at manipulating the staffroom to mark personal boundaries and make power statements.
Colonising prime space with books and graphs? That's the maths teachers.
Discussing politics and grumbling about change? The old-timers. And at the edge of things by the door? Supply staff, of course. "Sometimes it's individuals. One particularly disliked member of staff had been deliberately forced off the table simply by people dumping school equipment on his workspace," says Dr Paechter. "But often it's a group. Most staffrooms have at least one group that is exclusively female, for example, and in one of my research schools, the alliances made between these women allowed them to drive forward interdisciplinary innovations in the teeth of dominant male opposition, effectively sidelining a head of department."
And while it might not seem to matter if people prefer to brew up in departmental offices or skulk in the smokers' room, Dr Paechter points out that a dysfunctional staffroom may have a knock-on effect. "If staff are always fragmented, never coming together except for formal meetings, their ability to collaborate can be affected. The most important meetings are ad hoc, and you have to create opportunities for this to happen. An empty staffroom isn't just a physical absence; it demonstrates what's going on at a deeper level in the school."
Some staffrooms would put your average student digs to shame, with their dirty mugs stacked up in the sink, and mouldy sandwiches festering in the fridge. But the question of kitchen etiquette is a minefield. Do you have a washing-up rota? Or take individual responsibility for your mug? It may sound petty, but cleanliness - or the lack of it - is a common cause of staffroom friction. "Why should I clear up my colleagues' mess?" says one teacher who refused to fulfil her rota duties. At one school, senior managers ordered a clean-up after a succession of teachers went down with stomach bugs. Possible answers include paying for a dishwasher - mechanical or human - or using disposable cups and plates. Whatever you do, remember that the appearance of the staffroom reflects the people who use it, and that visitors are unlikely to be impressed by coffee stains and biscuit crumbs.
Small is beautiful?
Some of the best-used staffrooms are in primary schools. Primary staffrooms are usually smaller and often female-dominated, and, of course, there are no departmental cliques. They are often popular social spaces: primary teachers are more likely to start their day with a drink in the staffroom, whereas many secondary teachers boil a kettle in the classroom. And because staff don't have free lessons, the staffroom can be used for small group teaching during the day. "They're seen much less as private staff spaces," says Dr Paechter. "They're often more integrated into school life." But it's not all good news: the increasing number of teaching assistants in primaries has put pressure on space, with few schools adapting staffrooms to cope.
Here be dragons
In most primaries, the head will use the staffroom like any other member of staff. But secondaries can have big differences in how senior management view the space. In some schools, the head pitches in with the washing up.
In others, the staffroom is just another place where the head gets his or her way. And, in some, the head wouldn't dare set foot across the threshold without permission.
Often, whether or not a head uses the staffroom is down to leadership style. But the Teacher Support Network encourages heads and deputies to spend time in the staffroom. "It can be an excellent way of keeping in touch with how staff are feeling," says Tom Lewis, the fund's information manager. "They can become aware of issues before they get out of hand, or give an informal pat on the back to show someone they're appreciated."
But sometimes the head's use of the staffroom can have more to do with power politics than cosy conversations. "Heads can manipulate staffrooms," says Dr Paechter. "I've known heads allocate teachers a specific seat, and make sure no two people from the same department sit together, to 'encourage' interdepartmental working. And some make all the announcements there, so if you're not there you could miss out on important news."
A good gossip
There may be more to staffroom gossip than catching up with the football results or swapping stories about Year 11. A 2001 study by psychologist Kathryn Waddington at City University, London, concluded that gossiping is good for us, helping to maintain social relationships and providing an outlet for pent-up frustrations. Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool, agrees. He points out that language evolved to help humans form social bonds and build up powerful networks built on trust, and his study of Christmas card lists has shown that many ancient habits have lingered. "Ancestral human groups included about 150 people, and today you'll find someone's wide social network is almost exactly the same size." But we don't treat all 150 equally. "It's like a series of widening circles, with an inner core of five close family or friends and then a bigger group of 12-15, then 30-50 and so on, each group becoming gradually less intimate. But we don't expand these circles, so if you get really friendly with someone and move them into the inner core, for example, someone else has to move out to make room." Which puts most work colleagues somewhere in the outer circles. And this may be what makes staffroom socialising so important: looking after these outer reaches of our personal networks gives us a bank of people to rely on when things get tough and creates a strong sense of community. "It's important to have the opportunity for face-to-face interactions," says Professor Dunbar. "You need a point of focus for people to bump into each other - a giant water machine or photocopier."
...or a conspiracy of silence?
For many teachers, the idea of sitting down for a leisurely break sounds more like something from an old-fashioned novel than a picture of daily life. "At one time staffrooms were places of support. Now they've become more like Euston station," says Tom Lewis. The Teacher Support Network tries to encourage teachers to step off the treadmill occasionally and make more use of staffroom facilities. "There's a perception that if someone's sitting down, they can't be pulling their full weight. But it's important to recognise that it's OK to take a break." Getting together informally can help not only to anticipate and prevent some conflicts, but can also break what he calls "the conspiracy of silence". He says: "Because socialising has disappeared in many schools, teachers wonder if they're the only one having problems. They feel they have to keep their difficulties to themselves. It's important they find time to talk; to step back and look at solutions, rather than feeling inadequate."
My lips are sealed
Some studies have found that teachers are particularly reticent when it comes to talking about successes with managing behaviour, because they feel the staffroom culture encourages moaning rather than celebration. In 2003, Professor Andrew Miller at the University of Nottingham studied a group of 24 primary and secondary teachers who had begun to transform the behaviour of difficult students, but who were unwilling to share their solutions.
Some were concerned about appearing arrogant, while others said they wanted to get the stresses out of their system rather than have an in-depth discussion.
A virtual cuppa
But if some of us are shy about opening up face to face, we often seem happier sharing our highs and lows through a machine. With the rise of internet chatrooms, perhaps the need for running the staffroom gauntlet has passed. Users of The TES website's virtual staffroom are universally positive, many claiming it gives them professional support and friendship that is missing in school. "I've had a few problems recently - sensitive things I didn't like to talk about in school," says one user. "But I've been logging into the staffroom every day at 5pm for as much as two or three hours, and it's been a lifeline. I don't think I'd have got through without it." And the National College for School Leadership, which runs several online communities through its talk2learn scheme, says they have been extremely popular. "It allows those with something in common to have a professional dialogue, or to exchange learning," explains Alan Sargeant, e-learning facilitation manager. "These people are highly unlikely to meet, but want to be part of a network of professional support. I would never argue that online environments are not helped by face-to-face interaction, but for many people an online community works well."
We know who you are
But some experts are wary about swapping a visit to the staffroom for a session at the computer. Because anyone can join a virtual staffroom, there is no control over who is picking up your complaints. Can you be sure no one will see through your chatroom alias? And because there are no facial expressions or body language to latch on to, there's more chance of virtual discussions getting out of hand. At one end of the scale, research has shown that people are willing to declare eternal love online much more quickly and openly than in person. And at the other, chatroom conversations have been shown to be more likely to become abusive or aggressive than a discussion in the corridor. "Things tend to go over the top too quickly," says Professor Dunbar. "To handle that you need a good face-to-face relationship to begin with. Using a virtual staffroom can be an efficient way of circulating information or soliciting views from people you already know. But it is essential that you have a real environment to partner the virtual one."
* School Works (www.school-works.org), tel: 020 7981 0361.
* The Teacher Support Network (www.teacherline.org.uk), tel: 08000 562561.
* National College for School Leadership (www.ncsl.org.uk), tel: 0870 001 1155.
* Power Relations and Staffroom Spaces, by Carrie Paechter, in Forum, Vol 46. No 1, 2004.
* Teachers, Parents and Classroom Behaviour: a psychosocial approach, by Andrew Miller (Open University Press pound;17.99).
* The Staffroom is the Most Underused Room in the School: a study exploring the influence of space and gender in teacher workplace cultures, by Jane McGregor, available through School Works. Paper (unpublished) presented at the British Educational Research Association conference, September 2000 Photographs: Neil Turner Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Reports