But enter a classroom with colourful, varied and attractive wall displays and the message is one of efficiency, care for the environment and high expectations.
What, then, should adorn the classroom wall? In an ideal world, schools should be built and fitted out with spacious surfaces to exhibit work. Small areas of pinboarding result either in easy satisfaction with very little displayed or else in messy attempts to sticky tape material to the paint work.
Literacy teaching is just one of the purposes of wall displays. Posters of all kinds can widen the children's world-view, and with careful choice and updating can also illustrate specific topics.
A more controversial issue, but one not to be avoided, is the question of putting pupils' own work on the wall. Work produced by even the neatest and most artistic child will clearly be inferior to professionally published material. Accuracy and spelling may well be questionable. Should such work be put up?
On the one hand you want a good display but on the other you want to encourage the children's efforts - often a difficult and delicate balance to judge. Given a realistic challenge to produce work of a high standard, most pupils will be well motivated by the promise of a place on the wall.
Less able children will benefit enormously from seeing their efforts displayed and from the the recognition of their hard work. A good teacher practising differentiation in the classroom will know the pupils' capabilities and be able to balance the criteria of effort and outcome.
It is also important to ensure that the children feel the teacher is giving them ownership of at least part of the display.
The purpose is not just to show off work on an open evening or even to impress an inspector. It demonstrates to all who enter the room that pupils' efforts are valued.
Michael J Smith is a former teacher and examiner