In search of silence…

We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’t’s; we need books, time and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but once upon a time lasts forever.


Silence; It’s a hot topic at my school – rationalising it, achieving and maintaining it – and, probably as a result, I am increasingly aware of both the value and the absence of it, in education and in general. It is a peculiar thing, really; the most intangible of abstract concepts, disappearing as soon as its existence is stated… it is impossible to know for sure what it contains for anyone other than yourself. It is the absence of something as opposed to a ‘thing’ in its own right, and yet it can hold and communicate so much. It is a void full of possiblies and possibilities… a resource so potentially readily available and yet, seemingly, so difficult to grasp. So, shhhhhhh; here are my thoughts on our use of silence as a tool in education.

It is, first and foremost, a practicality. With narrow corridors, split breaks and lunches, and a number of ‘open’ classrooms (with an entire wall missing and, therefore, open to the corridor), it just makes sense to have silent corridors. Silence in general, actually; it is our natural state. And it’s a practicality; for the avoidance of disturbing the learning of others, and for the assurance of swift transition between lessons… It just makes sense. I am most aware and reflective about it when I am not at my own school. The normal sounds, the hustle and bustle, of a secondary school corridor have become a bit alien to me; alarming even. I’ve come to associate those noise levels with two things; the lively discussion of learning in classrooms, and the chatter and general hubbub of the students’ break and lunch times. For me, now, it has no place on the corridors where the learning of others can be affected. It has no place at times of transition when every minute wasted represents learning lost. And it is, first and foremost, a practicality. But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches far beyond any practical raison d’être.

Silence creates a purposeful environment. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong end of the stick here, don’t be fooled; our students are noisy. And, like all children, they mess about, shout and carry on, and move unnecessarily fast and without due care and attention. This is fine. There is, however, a clear distinction between the places and times of learning and those of socialising and recreation. The community hub of our academy, the heartspace, is alive with children being children; a thoroughfare through the middle of the building; all of the children’s lockers are located here; there’s usually a lot of toast about. My office is right in the middle of it and believe me, it is far from silent. Directly adjoining the heartspace we also have the iBase – a learning commons where the children can read, work, research, discuss, set up clubs and societies et cetera; the yard – where (for reasons I will never fully understand) they run around, seemingly at random; and the staff room… actually, this space is usually pretty quiet. It’s kind of a balcony overlooking the heartspace (though I’m not tall enough to see over the wall) but you are much more likely to find staff in the heartspace itself, munching a slice of toast. The rest of the school though – the classrooms and corridors – are places of purpose and determination. Aspiration and ambition. There’s no time or reason for idle chit chat; there’s an important job to be done and no time to lose!!!

One thing I learnt on my PGCE (and then re-learnt, the hard way, as an NQT) is that the first few moments of a lesson matter. Like, really matter. Be at your door, greet the students, have a task ready… set the pace, tone, and expectation on arrival. But what if they arrived at your door already ready? Calm, quiet, and clear as to what the expectations are because that’s what they experience from classroom to classroom and everywhere in between? Isn’t that the ideal starting point for learning? The ideal starting point for behaviour for learning? For me, an important aspect of being a teacher is scaffolding success for the students; creating systems that enable and facilitate them to ‘get it right’… and silent corridors are one way of doing this. They’re less likely to be late because there’s no temptation to stop for a chat. They’re less likely to speak out of turn, or not turn their learning behaviour back on quick enough, because there’s been no change of parameters in the transition between lessons. They’re more likely to be able to get ‘on task’ as soon as they arrive because they were never ‘off task’ in the between time; the purposefulness of the learning environment has been maintained.

Walking, side by side with your friends (and enemies!), in silence takes self-discipline. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even when no one is watching, takes integrity. Giving 100% of your effort day in and day out takes determination and drive. These are not simply the personal qualities required to make a successful transition from period three to period four; these are the personal qualities required for success in general. They are transferable skills.

Silence creates a reflective environment. I sometimes wonder what the children are thinking about while they walk, silently, to their next lesson. Maybe they’re processing some new learning or beginning to plan a recently set homework. Maybe they’re reflecting on how their day is going; have they taken another step on their journey up the mountain to university (or a real alternative), a top job and a great life? Or, maybe their mind is completely empty at those times… complete peace, stillness and serenity; a tabula rasa for the next lesson. I cannot remember the last time there wasn’t a kind of fragmented and randomly ordered ‘to do’ list doing a spin cycle in my brain. They could be thinking about what they’re having for tea that night or what’s going to be on the telly, and that’s fine; ultimately, I don’t think it really matters, the point is that they can.

For a teacher, an average day probably consists of sharing a lot of information that they already know and remaining within a consistent theme, e.g. geography/maths/art, interspersed with the odd bit of PPA. For a student, an average day consists of a relentless bombardment of new information on a range of different, and often completely unrelated, topics; it is a lot to take in and they don’t even get PPA! Well designed and planned social and recreational areas/times should provide students with the opportunity to unwind; to sit and chat with friends, read, run around at random… but do they provide an opportunity for private, personal reflection? Certainly, if I saw a child just sat staring into space I would strive to intervene! Where are their friends?! What club or activity might they like?! Has something happened at home?! These social and recreational times are important and need to be preserved … but when can the children reflect? When can they take a moment to let their brain process and sort all of that new information they have received? In moments of peace, like when we dream, our minds can wander from one thing to another and, even when our thoughts seem unrelated to the reality of what is important, begin to organise and prepare for whatever might happen next. I don’t know what the students are thinking about as they walk, silently, to their next lesson, but I do know this; they are free from the sounds and experiences of the classroom and also those of their break and lunchtimes… their mind is free to meander, and that is important.

Silence creates a safer environment. I was recently at one of those kinds of meetings that SENCo’s find themselves at frequently and was asked, by an educational psychologist, whether my school had a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable children. I suppose we don’t; there is no designated area for vulnerable students… and the assumption that we should have one raises a number of issues for me. What would having a ‘safe space’ for vulnerable students imply? That the rest of the school isn’t safe? That the rest of the students don’t require safety? Are they immune to vulnerability or just not entitled to protection from it? Or, do they need to reach a certain level of criticality before anything is done to help; until then they’re just coping? All children are vulnerable simply by virtue of being children. All children require and deserve to be safe; the whole school has to be a safe space for them. As well as the least vulnerable children being entitled to safety, the most vulnerable children are entitled to choice. They shouldn’t have to be segregated to experience safety and they shouldn’t be denied access to the social spaces and learning facilities of their school and community either. They shouldn’t be made to feel like the only way they can ‘belong’ is by being subject to conditions. This is the received wisdom of accepted segregation as a form of equality. It’s what perpetuates inequality in adult society. It’s not fair. And I haven’t gone off topic, I promise… the natural state of silence is a major contributor in providing a safer school for all students.

Achieving and maintaining silence requires presence. We collect our students after morning starters, break and lunch and escort them to lessons. Every time. We stand at our classroom doors to supervise the corridor and receive our next class between lessons. Every time. We share break time with the students and we eat with the students. Every time. The students are supervised and supported in every instance and this, perhaps counterintuitively, facilitates their independence and autonomy. Students who may be vulnerable to bullying, those who struggle to manage their own behaviour, those who struggle to manage their time and belongings, are not segregated for their own or anyone else’s safety and they don’t have their developmental and social opportunities hindered by 1:1 support between lessons; they simply do what all of the students do. And the less vulnerable children? Unaffected; unless, of course there’s a problem – a fall, a seizure or hypo, a behaviour incident. These sorts of incident can be picked up quickly on a silent and supervised corridor. A school designed to meet the needs of the most vulnerable and least able children is a school that can meet the needs of all of its children; intrinsically and inclusively. That’s equality.

Our students are all young – we only have years 7 to 9 currently – and I’m happy to acknowledge that how we do things will need to change as they get older; we already have a slightly different approach for year 9 compared to the younger year groups. But it can be done with real consideration of their needs as children and young people; educational and personal. To me, at 11, 12 and 13, even 14 and 15, years old… they’re just kids. They need and deserve our support on their learning curve to adulthood and, if we aren’t willing to put that in place, then maybe we are going to have to segregate the most vulnerable, escort them to lessons, and just hope for the best for the rest.

Maintaining a natural state of silence isn’t easy. I mean, it isn’t difficult as such, but it does mean doing the little things… maybe some boring or inconvenient things… lesson after lesson, day after day, week after week.   But it is the little things, when done with consistency and continuity, that sneak up on you with surprise benefits. And, for the sake of a few minutes apiece at a few key points throughout the day, the impact of silence stretches so much further than simply being a practicality.

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We’re gonna need a lot more cannons…

Well, the blog has been somewhat neglected for a couple of months and I’m not even sure why. I’ve been busy doing… the usual, day-to-day stuff. I dunno; life takes over, no? The unplanned hiatus has, however, given me chance to step back and take stock. Within the four walls of my own school I feel like a lot has been achieved. But speaking to others from within and beyond education, and when I visit other schools, I am reminded that we have got things going a bit different at DTA; and now we even have data to back our claims up. Beyond those four walls I have received plenty of support, kind words, encouragement, and good constructive feedback too, but it does feel like just that; words not action. And y’know what they say about that… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen a good few things that feel like a step in the right direction. When I say or think, “ooh! that’s like my way of doing things!”, I claim no causation or responsibility for it, but anything that I see as a step closer to equality and true inclusion feels like another soldier stepping up to the cause. And it’s pretty rare! I still mainly see the perpetuation – even innovation – of segregatory and discriminatory systems. The received wisdom, still, is to ‘include’ vulnerable groups by isolating them within their supposed community, labeling and segregating them, and educating them from behind a wall that, although built for their own protection, ultimately serves to block their access to a quality education whilst teaching them – and their non-segregated peers – that behind a barrier is where they belong. Destroying a child’s ambitions and opportunities with good intentions is still destroying their ambitions and opportunities. This, it turns out, only becomes more frustrating and infuriating as I watch from within as an alternative starts to fall neatly in to place around me. Seen as though I am not, apparently/sadly/thankfully (delete as appropriate), the DfE and able to instigate an overnight education overhaul, I will just have to continue to plug away at getting it how I want it in my own setting. And talking about it. Incessantly. No use throwing yourself at a brick wall, but we can – myself and all those other little foot soldiers of change – keep chipping away at the bottom of it. I’d like to blow it to smithereens! But we would need a lot more cannons…

I do most of my thinking (and loud, uninhibited singing) in the car on the way to and from school. And it was, whilst listening to Cannons by the Kaiser Chiefs and thinking about blowing up walls with medieval artillery, that I remembered that I have a blog and I should probably write some stuff on it. So, with that as the spur, it seems like a good time to ponder a couple of the recurring criticisms of my approach to inclusion that I have received. So…

Common criticism number one: yeah, it’s a good idea but it can’t be done. My Utopian vision of an inclusive education system – smalls schools, zero segregation, no stigma attached to special schools, no blind drive for inclusion as an under-one-roof provision – is woefully unattainable. Actually, I agree(ish) with this… it certainly doesn’t seem to be in immediate… or even intermediate… reach, and no individual one of us (to whom it matters) has that degree of control. But, we can each make a difference in our own sphere. I can’t perpetuate a system that isn’t fair and doesn’t work, so I’m trying something else… bloody hell; the outcomes for vulnerable groups, like SEN-D in mainstream, can’t get any worse, can they? I aren’t saying that I’ve found the answer, and I aren’t saying that all schools should be like my school, necessarily; I definitely advocate diversity and choice. But, come on now; what’s sticking us to the existing system? Is it easier? Definitely not for the SENCo! My approach is, hopefully (argh! not hopefully! I love my job!), going to result in there being no need for a SENCo. For teachers? Maybe, i suspect. Although, surely no-one goes into teaching because they’re looking for an easy life! Is it because we have consciously or sub-consciously written those kids off anyway? None of those reasons are good enough.

Critical criticism number two: my Utopian vision of a truly inclusive education system is actually intrinsically exclusionary. Well, that really depends on how you define ‘inclusion’ for the purposes of the educational discourse. If, for you, ‘inclusion’ means educating all of the children in the same building – the local comprehensive – then, yeah; no, that is not what I’m aiming for at all. I mean, it sounds great… but, in order to ensure every child had a peer group big enough to ensure avoidance of isolation within the community whilst still having as much choice as their wider peer group, the school would have to be HUGE! And I just aren’t down with that. Every child deserves to be educated in an environment where they’re known and valued. Where their contribution is known and valued… where a subtle change in their demeanor – which could indicate that they got out of bed the wrong side that morning or that their little world came crashing down around them that weekend – is noticed by the people they walk past on their way in to the building, possibly long before they’re sat in front of their teacher or their form tutor. For the lucky vast majority of children school is the only other place, aside from home, where they’re guaranteed to be; when things go wrong at home they need to be visible – really visible – at school. I was recently (fairly recently??? It feels like a yesterday I had ten years ago) lucky enough to attend @ERA_tweet ‘s inclusion unconference in London. It was so refreshing and inspiring to be in a room full of people on the same page but for all different reasons and I returned to Bradford bolstered and ablaze… I’d heard a lot of stuff that hit home, but I’d also heard one thing that I did not agree with. Mainstream schools, it was suggested, are designed for neat little box shaped children but children with additional needs are much more complex shapes and do not fit into the neat little box shaped holes. Actually, I kinda agree with it so far and, to be fair, this is where the actual metaphor ended. But, as usual, I can extend a metaphor far beyond it’s useful lifespan and into territory unnecessary and unasked for. They can, these complex shapes, be forced painfully into a box shaped hole anyway, or have a shape somewhat closer to theirs carved out for them somewhere within the school (but in their special hole they must stay), or they can be educated elsewhere; special school, PRU, home schooled, et cetera. I agree with this too. I don’t, however, believe that there are actually any neat little box shaped children. Every child is their own unique, complicated, usually bonkers, ever-changing shape. the real problem is that schools have been designed for boxes when actually they should be like a particularly crazy expanse of crazy paving, with perpetually wet concrete. the main differential between schools is their most recent Ofsted report and, apart from that, they’re pretty generic. Outstanding/Good/Requires Improvement/Inadequate and mainstream/special; half of those combinations imply that the school is not meeting the basic expectations of being a school, and a different half are unfairly stigmatised as uninclusive because they cater to a specific need-type a child might experience. So we are dealing with a system wherein a child with a complex speech, language and communication need attends their local comprehensive school where they experience segregation, potentially bullying, and little learning because that is deemed more inclusive… meanwhile, a parent is faced with the choice of sending their musically gifted year 6 child to a school with music specialist status, with all of the associated facilities, or a sports specialist school, with all the trappings that the association affords. The sports specialist school is Ofsted ‘outstanding’ and the music school is in ‘special measures’. Something’s gone wrong… but it isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.

So I would suggest a system made up of schools designed to meet the needs of a wide range of unique, important, ever-changing children-shapes. A system made up of schools that are all doing what schools are supposed to be doing (Ofsted call it ‘outstanding’, but Ofsted isn’t the reason to do it that way!), and each offering something that sets them apart, so parents and students have real choice. If that isn’t inclusion… well, I’m okay with that. We’ll call it something else (education?). And, if it isn’t immediately, intermediately or (gasp!) ever attainable? To me, it’s non-optional; we’re gonna need a lot more cannons.

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