The end of playtime

Teachers had to collect children from the playground 3 times a day, at the end of the lunch break, and morning and afternoon ‘playtime’. The procedure was as follows:

1. The teacher on duty blows a whistle. Children stand still.
2. The teacher blows a second whistle. Children go to line up neatly in class groups.
3. The class teacher leads the group back into class in quiet and orderly fashion.

Alas, the practice didn’t quite match the theory. Apart from the problem of what to do if a teacher was not there to collect children (some teachers were not entirely scrupulous in their timekeeping), in practice there was often a considerable gap between the two whistles, while those children gloriously ignoring the injunction to stand still were hounded, shouted at and implored to comply. By the time they were ready, others had got bored and started to wander around again themselves. Cue more shouts, threats etc … The second whistle would mark a mad dash for places in the line, because for some reason it was important to be at the front. Cue arguments and shoving matches, all the way back to class, and a frequently stressful and disjointed start to the next session.

I hope that anyone considering this would think: what’s the point of two whistles? What does making the kids stand still achieve? But there are wider and more important questions: Why do children need to line up? Why does the line need to be neat? Why do teachers need to come and collect children?
This issue could be examined in terms of efficiency: Is it worth the hassle? Does it contribute to the smooth running of things? (On these grounds it was easy to see that the first whistle was not just superfluous but actually a waste of time and cause of problems)
It could also be scrutinised from the viewpoint of natural rights, or justice:
Why should a group of people be compelled to line up neatly? Is this just a symbol of the exercise of power?(Note how this always seems to feature in films featuring POW camps)

Of course, the first proposition can only really be tested by trying something different. We are very often hugely reluctant to try something different, because of the hassle, the risk of failure and the sense that maybe it’s a bit radical. But do we acknowledge that what we are currently doing is as much of an experiment, or based on untested propositions? Why are teachers not made to line up at the Staff Room door at the end of lunchtime?

Changing the end-of-playtime arrangements was one of the very first things we did, based on the latter (human-rights) viewpoint, of thinking that we shouldn’t make children line up and wait to be led back into school unless there was a very good reason (like a fire drill) to do so. We just told the children that playtime was over (giving a few minutes advance warning to try to avoid the just-another-minute-to-score-another-goal syndrome), at which point they had to go back inside, where staff were waiting for them in the classrooms.
Lo and behold, they did, and with much less hassle and fewer arguments. This did not solve the problem of arguments and fights occurring outside, and the need to try to resolve issues, disputes and upsets at the start of the next session, but the transitions were undoubtedly easier and much more efficient.

We extended this approach to other occasions of enforced ‘lining-up’, such as general going to and fro as a class group (eg for assembly, see below). On a specific occasion when it might be desirable to line up (eg on a trip out of school where we needed to count heads) our own rule became to make sure that this reason was explicitly explained to children.

We found that doing away with routine lining-up was an overwhelming success: less time wasted, less hassle, fewer problems to deal with, and happier kids with a little more control over their lives in school.


Someone needs to do some serious research into the causes and consequences of school assemblies (ie the whole school, or multi-class sections of it, meeting together). My own memory is in this respect almost entirely blank. The sole recollection I have from primary school is of waiting to call for 3 cheers for the teachers (must have been at Christmas or the end of the school year), agonising about the best moment to do so, and being gazumped by a much less hesitant – and perfectly well-meaning – younger boy. (Tellingly, he got told off. Think about it, he was told off for saying thank you to the teachers …. Probably he was told that if he was allowed to get away with it, before you know it there’d be no way to do any constructive business in schools because of constant interruptions to say thank-you. But I’m sure he went far.) Anyway, that’s it, no other memories. Likewise in secondary school, all I can remember is one great occasion when I was in the sixth form when there was a co-ordinated collapse – two or three rows of us fell to the floor like dominoes. I was an enthusiastic participant but wouldn’t have had the nerve to initiate it and I can’t remember the context. It was very funny, though. Unlike any assembly I ever attended as a child.

Over 12 years of my own schooling, I must have attended getting on for 2000 assemblies. That’s not a brilliant return in terms of memorable education, especially since my two memories don’t actually relate to the content at all.

I think in practice assemblies are loved by teachers, as long as they don’t have to attend or – much worse – lead them, because they give them some (much-needed) time to prepare resources, tidy up, go to the loo etc. Assemblies find their place in the curriculum as deliverer of the legally-required daily act of worship, and facilitator of homilies (literally if like me you went to a church school) and dispositions on moral themes, especially those relating to following school rules and the dire consequences for breaches thereof.

And thus there’s a seamless organisational link with the lining up question:
1. Make a stupid rule
2. Watch it not working
3. You can then justify spending lots of time getting the kids together to nag them about it and berate them for their woeful refusal to comply. (Of course, most are already complying and it’s therefore a double waste of their time, but that’s the price you have to pay for being in a large institution.)

There’s a further confluence of the two issues, which is that taking part in an event where quite a large number of children have to come together in one room offers a marvellous opportunity to practice walking and sitting in scrupulously straight lines – and with the added indoor bonus of doing so in silence. (To return to the Staff Room analogy, I’d pay good money to watch teachers being told to come in to a staff meeting in neat lines in their year groups and sit in silence until the arrival of the Headteacher)

Sadly, kids just don’t seem to be appreciating assemblies any more than I did. Anecdotal evidence from my own children and their friends is not good, although the school where I work at the moment does try very hard to make them interesting and enjoyable.

Our approach at WB was to abolish daily assemblies. (Interestingly, Ofsted never made an issue of this, or asked about the ‘act of worship’) We tried various formulas for voluntary assemblies or meetings, with pretty limited success, and ended up with a whole-school ‘Family Assembly’ every week, to which parents were also invited, where we celebrated the week’s birthdays and significant events. We sang songs and I told appalling jokes, usually greeted with boos, but also sent our love and thoughts to people suffering illness, poverty and natural disasters. Classes just came in and sat in their accustomed position (crowded in to our small hall) and talked until we were ready to start. If they didn’t seem ready to be quiet, I’d just start singing and hope like mad that everyone would join in. And luckily they did. At the end, we’d normally let the smallest kids out first, and then everyone would just mill out together. It wasn’t perfect but there was often a wonderful sense of the school being together as a caring, learning community: reflecting, celebrating and having fun. Apparently, under-7s can leave a room together without needing Army-style regimentation. Hold the front page.


Doing away with a compulsory school uniform – which I certainly would have regarded as an important plank of establishing more child-friendly practice – didn’t arise at WB because uniform never had been compulsory. We made available T-shirts, polos, sweat shirts and coats – in a wide range of colours and as cheaply as possible – with the school logo for those who wanted them, and lots of staff, including me, regularly wore them too. We encouraged children to wear comfortable, sensible clothes that could take a bit of a battering and plenty of dirt.
But while in 2000 there were several other schools in Nottingham with a similar policy, by 2010 I believe we were the last holding out against a compulsory uniform.
This is another issue that could benefit from some serious research. How much time is used up, especially in secondary schools, by the enforcement of rules about uniform, and the efforts of children to avoid or subvert them? Clearly, the rules of organisational logic as outlined above, apply vigorously here.

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