A foolish consistency – the Primary School disease?

Let me start by saying that I think consistency is vital in schools. Pupils need to know that the behaviour policy will apply equally to everyone, and be applied equally by everyone. If a school has a uniform, then rules about it should be fairly and consistently applied to all. Children in Year 4 are entitled to just as good teaching as children in Year 6.

But there are limits. And it seems that too many primary headteachers cross them, to my mind. Not all, of course, but too many. On Twitter today a perfect example was shared by Rosie Watson (@Trundling17):

There is a headteacher – or senior leadership team – somewhere that thought it was an useful use of its time to come up with a list of 30 “must haves” that include how the classroom door must be signed, and that pegs must be labelled in week 1.

I wasn’t even that surprised when I saw it, because I’ve known far too many schools get caught up in such nonsense. Display policies can sometimes be the most read in a primary school, and I’ve known them include things like:

  • drapes must be used to soften the edges of displays
  • all work should be double-mounted
  • topic boards must be changed at least every 2 weeks
  • all classrooms must display a hundred square
  • all staples must point in the same direction

The point is that none of these things is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the one about staples appeals to my slightly frenzied mind. But to dictate it to a staff of highly-trained professionals? To expect teachers to spend their time and energy on such things rather than planning and preparing for learning strikes me as crazy.

What surprised me most about Rosie’s post, though, was not the content –  I fear that’s all too common – but the fact that some headteachers then tried to defend such approaches. The claims were that it was a useful reminder, or helpful for new teachers.

I have two issues with this. Firstly, the list is very clearly presented as a list of expectations to be met and judged against – not just helpful reminders. Secondly, these are not all good uses of someone’s time. If they were recommendations that I was free to ignore (and believe me, I would ignore a good number of them), then that’s fine, but that’s clearly not the case here.

If a school is insistent that its classroom doors have name labels in a certain style, then it should organise this administrative task, not simply demand it of teachers. Teachers’ time should be spent on things that directly impact teaching and learning, and precious few of these do.

Sadly, such “non-negotiables” seem to have become something of  a norm in school, with headteachers thinking that the way they ran their classrooms is now the way that others should follow suit. But it’s madness.

Headteachers are well aware of the strategic/operational divide between governors and heads, but they should consider a similar separation from the involvement in classrooms. Absolutely it is the place of the headteacher to lead on matters of curriculum and learning, and even to set the broad principles and expectations for the “learning environment” (oh, how I hate that term!), but that’s not the same as specifying the date by which your pegs are labelled.

The only other argument that was tentatively put forward was for schools which are in “a category”. Now here, I have some sympathy with heads who take on a school where things are a mess. Sometimes a clear list of expectations helps to brings things out of a pit – but that clearly isn’t the case here. If classrooms are untidy, it’s reasonable to expect that they be tidy; if disorganised cloakrooms are delaying learning, then it’s reasonable to expect something to be done about it. But no school was ever put in Special Measures because boards were backed with ‘inappropriate’ colours, or because  a Year 6 classroom didn’t have a carpet area.

And if  a school is in measures, then it probably shouldn’t be wasting its attention on how the classroom door is labelled! Both the leadership team and the teachers more widely should be focusing on the things that make the most difference to teaching and learning. Of course expectations should be raised, but that doesn’t need to be done through a foolish consistency.

Headteachers and Senior Leadership teams: you are busy enough – don’t sweat the small stuff, and certainly don’t make others sweat it for you!

(P.S. I’m a real rebel: I don’t label pegs at all!)


For an indication of some of the mad things that are dictated in primary schools, take a look at this Storify in response to my tweet:

8 thoughts on “A foolish consistency – the Primary School disease?

  1. Sue 18 August 2016 at 7:43 pm Reply

    I would fail as a teacher if I was presented with the criteria that Rosie Watson shared. In fact, that would probably force me to leave the profession altogether!

  2. Rachel Powell 18 August 2016 at 8:19 pm Reply

    I’ve thought for a long time that we’re all striving for consistency when what we should be striving for is excellence-whatever that looks like.

  3. MrsM 18 August 2016 at 11:26 pm Reply

    How about “all display board borders need mitred corners” ?

    • Bridget Smith 19 August 2016 at 9:32 am Reply

      Cheeky x

  4. karenwildingeducation 19 August 2016 at 8:09 am Reply

    Great post Michael. This is a classic symptom of a lack of true vision. When everyone in a school passionately believes in the highest quality of education for children and truly understand what this entails, then the ‘small stuff’ becomes part of the process and not the ‘end goal’. This lack of trust and real investment is the reason so many brilliant teachers being lost to our profession.

  5. teachingyear2 20 August 2016 at 10:46 am Reply

    We had ‘All displays must contain a learning objective, success criteria and learning processes.’

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