When I asked Catherine Burke what she would wish for if she could change just one thing in all schools, this is how she replied:
(T)o remove everything from schools including all the clutter and all the paraphernalia and all the technology and all the stuff and then have a really good think about what was necessary to bring back.
And to try and justify bringing everything back.
And OK, bring it all back if it’s got some justification but schools are (…) very cluttered places, full of stuff (…) lots of layers of things that are not necessarily of use any more.
Catherine’s view of the school building as a container, from which everything could be removed in order to see what is actually useful, came back to me very clearly this week when I visited a new primary school in the London Borough of Newham. The old school, which had been a junior school for several decades, had been demolished and rebuilt as a primary school on the same site.
Walking around the school with the assistant head teacher, I noticed that the ubiquitous coat pegs usually found in school corridors and halls were nowhere to be seen.
One of the teachers explained to me that each pupil had their own large, plastic storage box in a unit outside the classroom to keep their things in, including their coats. On wet days, coats could be hung on the backs of chairs until they were dry enough to put away in the boxes.
Above the children’s storage boxes were second, third and even fourth layers of boxes containing the school paraphernalia that Catherine Burke refers to in her interview. Classrooms in the new school are small in comparison with the old junior school and although some have been arranged to make room for one small cupboard, others have not. None of the classrooms have a walk-in storage cupboard, beloved by primary teachers across the country not only as a place to put their stuff, but also as a tiny haven to take some breathing space from the pressures of school life.
The volume of storage space in the school seems extremely limited for a three/four form entry primary school. How had they managed to compress all of their resources and stationery into these relatively small boxes?
The answer, as the assistant head explained to me, seems to come from the circumstances of the move from the junior to the primary school. There had been a short interim period between the old school and new school when everything was decanted into a small Baptist church building at the end of the street. Every treasured object and resource was carried by the staff from their classrooms and cupboards to be stored in the church. But when it was time to move everything into the new school, objects began to justify their value in terms of the weary arms and legs of the teachers. Suddenly the skip, placed temptingly outside the church, seemed to make the process of choosing what to take to the new school a lot simpler.
So it seems that one way to declutter a school may be to construct a two-step process, first removing everything and then making the prospect of bringing it all back less than attractive. And Catherine Burke’s wish had come true, in one school at least.
You can read the full interview with Dr Catherine Burke here