Rightmove and the wrong sideboard. The classroom display debate

In the same way it brings ice creams, day trips and, “phew what a scorcher” headlines, summer inevitably brings the age old debate about classroom display.

Should one have a corporate approach to classroom décor; or a spartan mindset; or a room so highly decorated it is like the lovechild of Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen and Laura Ashley; or one akin to a theme park so immersive is its design? Should it be hessian or laminated or strung with fairy lights, or safely sparsely  peppered with whole school standardised messaging in agreed font and colourway?

What is the only constant in this world of design debate is that no one can seemingly agree on what is best.

And that is because not everyone needs the same sideboard.

One look on Rightmove in any price bracket will reveal a multitude of properties, different in age, architecture, condition, function and location. All will be in varying states of decorative repair and I can guarantee that they will not all contain an identical sideboard.

Before my current home, I lived in period properties, happily renovating them and lovingly filling their nooks and crannies with restored precious period furniture to create beautiful environments suited to my pre children location, lifestyle and the style of the properties. Fast forward to my current home where I live with three small children which is an open plan 60s house and which needed to be functional, fairly kid proof and with furniture that was reliable, safe and met the needs of a growing brood.

That arts and crafts sideboard with the sharp edges, the doors you couldn’t attach a child lock  to,  and the heavy drawers which fell out if you pulled them too hard was not really going to cut it in a house full of adventurous toddlers.

So my brother now has that sideboard. He also has my triple wardrobe, rocking chair, half a dozen paintings and a writing bureau  of mine as they just don’t work in my house. But they work in his.

The sideboards we have work for our environments. They fit our needs. We think they look good and they make us happy, well, as happy as a sideboard can make you. We have to live with our sideboards and look at them every day so it makes sense we’d like them to look good as well as working well.

And it’s the same with classroom display. You need different approaches for different settings so trying to agree on one style of sideboard is madness.

If you teach Science in a lab with multiple classes in secondary it makes perfect sense that you won’t necessarily want elaborate displays draped with fabric, lit with fairy lights and with soft cushions to sit on. If you work in a Y1 class, equally you are not going to want a corporate approach to your classroom design where there are no spaces for exploratory play, curling up with a book, areas to interact with exciting stimuli or a place to sit comfortably and listen to a story. These are obviously extremes but it is necessary to recognise that classrooms serve different functions depending on age, stage and subject. A classroom where a class in primary spends an entire day (which can be a very big proportion of a very young child’s waking hours) needs to reflect the different activities that will take place in there, not all purely academic. It needs to serve as a place of grounding  and foster a sense of belonging just as much as it needs to function as a place to interact with subjects. That is not to  say that primary classrooms need to be akin to a theme park or an explosion in “The Range” but that they are multi functional spaces which need to welcome children into school and be a pleasant environment just as much as they need to be efficient environments for learning.

A secondary classroom which may have multiple year groups passing through it does not therefore necessarily need be that same kind of sideboard. The specialist nature of many secondary rooms will dictate the layout or design of any room and therefore the zoning or signposting that may go on in primary rooms  may not  be as necessary.

However, regardless of whether you are in primary or secondary and regardless of whether you relish hours with a staple gun and swathes of draped chiffon or whether you loathe the idea of multiple displays, there are a few commonalities for all “sideboards”.

The first is the idea of cognitive load. No one would surround their TV at home with overly  busy wallpaper, multiple photographs or paintings, a memo board, lists, prompts or distractions. The  focus is the TV and so little is placed around them. The same should go for boards in classrooms. Wherever you want the greatest focus and attention to be, reduce the clutter around it and keep signage to a minimum. That is not to say you cannot have beautiful displays in class, just that where you want children to focus is not the ideal spot for these.

Working walls. There is mixed research on the effectiveness of these as, with anything, done well and used well they are very useful. I use them a lot myself but when they become tokenistic or misunderstood then they are simply wallpaper. Just putting a recipe on the wall in your kitchen won’t cook your dinner for you; you need to know how to actually cook it and then actually prepare it for anything to actually  happen. Same with working walls. Unless they are used strategically and are an integral part of your teaching approach then they’re just a few rolls of edu-Graham and Brown.

Celebration displays. I’ll come clean. I love these. I love a wall full of children’s work that they’re so obviously proud of and which celebrates the achievements of all of the children in the class. Whether these are in the classrooms or shared areas these can look beautiful, spark discussion, create a sense of pride, and celebrate the wonderful work our children have produced. When the children can get involved in the construction of these then all the better. My Y5s and 6s could double back  and put up a display in my room in under 30 mins over a lunchtime and they would squabble as to who would be allowed in at lunchtime to cut out the lettering and showcase the class’ work; I’d lend my lovely helpers to other teachers across the school too so that all year groups could benefit from their love of creating display. I love visiting  schools where there are spaces for seeing pupils’ finished work and it never ceases to amaze me both how keen children are to show me their displays and the depth and richness of the curriculum experiences our schools are providing. In my own class though, these were at the back or the side of the room, away from the main board and were changed regularly so as not to become yet more wallpaper.

Hanging stuff. If you want to annoy your premises officer, hang stuff from the ceiling  that falls off in the night triggering the sensors, or tack stuff onto windows that slides off and sets off the alarms when the early morning condensation forms. I’m not averse to hanging or draping stuff, I just wince when I think of the number of times in headship I faced the wrath of our premises officer who’d had yet another intruder alarm callout due to a falling rainbow or a wayward cardboard cloud. So, a word of warning to the danglers amongst us; ensure you’ve triple secured everything.


Please, just don’t.

Laminating ensures that your resource will be around for hundreds if not thousands of years before it degrades. No archaeologist of the future is going to be thrilled to dig up a Twinkl lettering set of your Stone Age display title. And no one, simply no one, needs any resource (however often it is used) to last for thousands of years. Laminated items create glare, can’t be read easily on most walls and are horribly wasteful and expensive. There is no point drinking from a reusable thermal mug and bringing our resources to school in a hessian bag if we’re then going to encase in plastic the resources we use with our children.

Our classrooms then are our own personal teaching spaces. They need to be pleasant to exist in. There is also a need to match them to  age,  stage and subject and to ensure they are well organised, functional  and don’t overload children with busyness whether that busyness be created in black and white or a riot of primary colours.

We need to ensure that children focus on two things, functionality and beauty. There is a popular approach  within interior design that things should be either beautiful or functional to earn their place in our homes and it is this approach I take in classroom design. In some areas I need a pared back, highly functional efficient approach and in others, a celebration of the beauty the children have created.

What I’m not going to do? Try and recreate an IKEA sideboard approach to classroom design which says that everyone  must have the same design in the same colour in the same spot. I’m going to visit lots of classes this year and I know I’ll see a range of designs, approaches and colourways and that’s just fine. And in the same way I wouldn’t turn up my nose at someone’s choice of sideboard in their home  and suggest that a different style or design might be better, I’m also not going to comment unless asked on anyone else’s classroom design. I don’t work in their room. I don’t work with their children and I don’t know how they teach.

So go decorate your classrooms however you like and be confident in the “sideboard” choices you make. I loved decorating and setting up my classrooms and loved pottering around prepping it all but I know others don’t share that thinking. However, regardless of whether you love a staple gun or prefer a bare wall, please ditch the laminator and also know that the greatest resource any child in your class ever has is you; no display ever actually “teaches” children so if you’re wondering about time efficiencies then your own teaching, planning and prep will always get more bang for your buck than any display you could ever create.  Teaching is our “vocation vocation vocation” not “changing rooms.”

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