Raising Achievement Update looks at a book that describes practical ways of meeting the challenges of implementing circle time in secondary schools and why it can be so valuable

Circle time is still mostly thought of as a primary school activity. It is likely that most children of primary age have had an experience of circle time. More than that, many of them will have a weekly opportunity to sit in a circle with their classmates to discuss issues that are of immediate concern to the class, or to explore emotions and learn social skills. The government’s documentation to support the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) curriculum in primary schools advocates the use of circle time as a forum for delivering class-based aspects of the programme. Similarly, guidance documents for personal, social and health education (PSHE), and the national healthy schools standard (NHSS), include references to taking part in whole-class discussion to:

  • encourage active participation
  • provide opportunities for students to have a voice.

Student voice

At secondary level, there is a commitment to hearing student voice. This results from a growing recognition of the important links between:

  • emotional wellbeing
  • personal and social development
  • learning.

The statutory orders for citizenship include developing the skills of enquiry and communication as well as those of active participation. The non-statutory guidance for PSHE makes no recommendation for approaches, but suggests that students work in a ‘range of groups and social settings with their peers and others’.

Building confidence

Circles, PSHE and Citizenship looks at the way in which an 11-18 girls’ comprehensive school in Bath used circle time as the cornerstone of its approach to PSHE throughout the school. It covers all aspects of how the approach was adapted, implemented and resourced, from strategic vision through to classroom delivery. This particular school had conducted a staff survey and discovered that teachers did not have the confidence they needed to deliver high-quality PSHE or citizenship. The senior team decided to bring together PSHE, citizenship and PE into a faculty called self, health and exercise (SHE). There was a brief to extend extra-curricular activities while raising the profile of healthy living for all students and even staff.

Holistic experience

The new faculty provided students with a holistic experience of healthy living, covering both theory and practice. It was staffed by a designated team of specialists who received an ongoing programme of training in the use of circle time for classroom-based curriculum delivery. The training took place over five years on a rolling programme which ensured that each member of the faculty had a chance to:

  • learn about circle time approaches, activities and philosophies
  • put the ideas into practice
  • reflect on their experiences.

Timespan

One of the greatest strengths of this school’s strategic approach to implementing circle time was this opportunity for five years of supported and reflective continuing professional development. Each year the staff brought back their observations and experiences from using the activities and approaches with a new year group or a different set of students. Everyone learned from the experiences of their colleagues and collective problem solving became a ‘way of being’ in the faculty. Staff buddied up to watch one another run a circle lesson, or they taught in pairs whenever possible, in order to provide feedback as critical friends on one another’s practice. It is how the book comes to be filled with:

  • tried and tested games
  • activities
  • lesson plans and approaches.

Difficulty

The book is an account of real-life experiences, some of them fraught with difficulty. No one pretends that the implementation of a circle time approach in a secondary school is easy. On the contrary, there is reference to, and suggestions for, overcoming the problems involved with:

  • setting up a room
  • not disturbing adjacent colleagues with excessive noise
  • engaging reluctant teenage girls
  • overcoming adult inhibitions in order to be a creative leader and facilitator.

On the other hand, there is a pervasive sense that the effort was worthwhile. A wise 15-year-old is quoted as saying:

We can have good discussions and go around getting everyone’s point of view. The circle is good for discussing because you can see everybody and you feel like you want to say something. If you want to do written work, the circle is not the best place because you can distract other people and you don’t have anywhere to write. If the aim of the lesson is to discuss, then we should be in the circle the whole time. If we are working on other things, then you should maybe be at your desk.

A younger student in Year 8 noted:

The worst part of the lesson is when you first go in before you start moving around in the warm-up activity. If there was no ice-breaker, it would be much more difficult. We play fun games that are interactive and everyone laughs. We have to get more confident with one another in the games. We sit next to different people and it is good.

Practical

This is a highly practical text. It is designed to be accessible to teachers who are too busy to read tomes, no matter how useful the content. So the book is divided into five sections. These are discrete and can be read as stand-alone chapters or consecutively, depending on the reader’s previous knowledge or current learning needs:

  • Section one provides information about the case study school and the management strategy that led to circle time being adopted as the main pedagogy of the newly established self, health and exercise (SHE) faculty.
  • Section two contains the theory behind circle time. Each part of the chapter provides the reader with the practical implications of the theory alongside a list of practical tips for making the theory real in practice.
  • Section three is a summary of how to implement and facilitate a circle time approach in secondary school. Again, the practical tips at the end of each learning point are taken from the experience of teachers who struggled with making the new approach work. The section ends with a set of frequently asked questions. The answers might help to allay some of the more common fears and concerns of teachers as they begin to use circle time in secondary schools.
  • Section four provides the reader with resourced lesson plans – two for each of the year groups from Year 7-13. The resources are found on the CD that accompanies the book so they can easily be printed off and used by busy teachers. These lesson plans are taken directly from the schemes of work in the school. They often came from previous PSHE or citizenship work that was adapted to fit with the format, activities and approaches of the circle. 
  • Section five is a list of games, which the staff found worked with young people between the ages of 11 and 18.

Engaging young people

We need more ways of engaging young people in their own learning and development, so as to tackle disaffection and disengagement. Antidote’s data from 8,000 young people shows that, between the ages of eight and 16, students become increasingly disconnected from both the adults in school and the peers who are not their closest friends. Young people report a lack of emotional and physical safety in school, which pushes them into closed friendship groups. The students themselves tell us that friends create coherence by cultivating similarities in clothes, music, interests and lifestyle. These small, cohesive groups then become disparaging of those who are perceived to be different. They often become deliberately impermeable to the adults in the school community. Students also tell us that secondary schools do little to break down the barriers between groups, or to make connections between individuals in a class. Little attention is paid to creating, sustaining and developing a cohesive, functioning group from the 30 or so young people in a classroom. It is little wonder that students do not feel safe enough to take risks in front of one another – such as trying out a new piece of learning or answering a thought-provoking question. If student voice is to mean anything, young people must be allowed to influence practice. Secondary schools need to give time and attention to the emotional and social aspects of attending school and learning. As the book shows, providing a forum such as circle time, where barriers can be broken down and trust built, does not mean students will hijack the educational agenda. They seem to be genuinely pleased to be given the space, place and safety to grapple with some of the issues and concerns that matter to them as they grow up in 21st-century Britain.

Circles, PSHE and Citizenship: Assessing the Value of Circle Time in Secondary School, by Marilyn Tew, Mary Read and Hilary Potter, is published by Paul Chapman Publishing

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