At our school, classrooms look decidedly similar to each other. While content varies, displays are presented in very consistent ways and names on drawers are positioned in the same manner. There is a place for everything and, ideally, everything goes in its place.
This is just part of a broader push for consistency. For example, our ethos is absolutely clear, carefully articulated and effectively communicated whether you’re leafing through the prospectus, the website or, more importantly, observing the actions of the staff.
The approach is not about striving for an overwhelming uniformity. Every child is a unique person and our role is to enable them to maximise their individual potential.
To ensure that this is possible, though, you need to create the security of a consistent culture. This acts as a supportive structure when other aspects of the school change over time. The lessons being delivered will alter, but students still know where they are, how to find things and what the school stands for.
Of course, you can get the balance wrong. Here’s how we get the consistency that’s necessary for success without succumbing to stifling uniformity.
1 Behaviour management
We have an agreed stance on challenging behaviour so that wherever the children find themselves the expectations are the same. However, this is not an inflexible approach. Where required, children have an individual management plan reflecting specific rewards, sanctions and strategies matched to their age and developmental needs. Reducing variability in the adult response is crucial as it provides security for those children still learning how to behave in a socially acceptable manner.
We use symbols to support accessing and navigating the environment and we ensure that they are always the same size and in the same location in every room – for example, in the top right-hand corner of low-level cupboards. Resources are also the same size and laminated in the same type of plastic. When a child makes a choice, you want it to be on the basis of the content, not because one is shinier or has a bigger symbol. Removing as many variables as possible makes that more likely.
We avoid labelling children, instead working to create a communicatively rich environment involving many resources and approaches. We use objects of reference, symbols, Makaton and spoken language flexibly according to the needs of the child and the context of the communication. However, we make sure that we use the same symbols consistently and agree which ones to use across the school. Communication is dependent on the quality of the relationship between the adult and the child, and we want that relationship to be as consistent as possible.
Pupils develop sophisticated ways of identifying cues from adults to narrow down the options and increase the chances of guessing an answer correctly. So we introduce some checks – for example, teachers randomise the order of presentation and try not to subconsciously look at or touch the right answer last. This is our consistent starting point, but things can be adapted for the context.
So as a school we are bound together by a shared belief consistently applied, but equally free from the straitjacket of a uniform approach. We value the professional autonomy of the teacher and trust in their ability to respond to the needs of the children they teach. If you want to have confidence in the big picture, it’s really important to keep an eye on the small stuff.
Simon Knight is deputy head at Frank Wise School in Banbury and associate director of the National Education Trust @SimonKnight100