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Display: how to kick the sugar paper habit

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It’s quite possible that the way schools display students’ work hasn’t changed in around 40 years. You take several pieces of work, mount them on sugar paper, create some kind of title, staple it all to a wall that is covered in more sugar paper, possibly adding a charming scallop-edged sugar paper border to set the whole thing off.

After spending around half a day doing this, you sit back and watch as people walk straight past it for a few months and it gets tattier and more ragged from brushes with passers-by. No-one really looks at it, unless it’s the two days out of every five years when Ofsted pays a visit, or the three days a year when parents come in. So what’s the point?

The point is simply that this is the way it has always been done. Maybe it’s time to think about the purpose of displays. Why are they there? And is there a better, cheaper, more attractive, less time-consuming way to do it? Actually, yes there is…

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The Writing’s On The Wall

When Mike Barnes was the head teacher at Flakefleet School in Fleetwood, he took a radically different approach, abandoning permanent displays and liberating teachers and TAs from the tyranny of sugar paper. He had all the walls painted white and encouraged teachers to put whatever they wanted to display directly on to the walls, which were now easy to retouch if they got damaged. He explains why he took this approach.

“The purpose of display is to give kids pride in their work. It shouldn’t be about making the school look pretty. Whilst it does create a pleasant environment, you have to ask yourself at what cost? Ask yourself – who looks at it? If you’re honest, it’s there in case Ofsted comes.

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“We provided just one wall at the back of the classroom that was the colour of that particular year group. No backing paper was needed and the rest of the walls were left white. Initially they were completely bare and people commented that it was stark. Teachers decided what they wanted on their classroom and corridor walls, and put things up when they felt like it rather than creating big, permanent displays, so it took no time at all. Often they chose to put up resources that help with learning. The walls were a lot less cluttered and you could really see the point of everything that was there.

“We also had a large number of click frames around the school to promote ideas and give accolades to children. Teachers put excellent work into these frames and they can change it as often as they like – it takes seconds. The point is that everyone sees it as they walk around the school, it focuses attention on a single piece of work and if it’s yours, you feel really proud. If a display doesn’t change you stop seeing it, so you need to be able to change them easily.

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“Kids will push past and work stuck on walls will get ruined. If you use display boards with sliding doors you can protect their work, keep it looking neat and it takes far less time to put it up. At Flakefleet each year group had its own colour, so we got display boards in those colours and teachers simply pin work up if they want it shared. It’s quick, easy and it’s not a burden on anyone’s time.”

“Another way we celebrated achievement was with a cupboard mounted at a child’s height on a wall in the staff corridor. If someone did an excellent piece of work, they put it in the cupboard and anyone could open the door to look at it. So being asked to put your work into there was very special, because people took time out to look at it.”

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Crossing the Digital Divide

Another way Mike revolutionised display within his school was by harnessing digital technology, enabling the content of displays to be changed frequently, which meant they got noticed more. Networked TV screens were used throughout the school to display pupils’ work, pictures, videos and messages.

“When we refurbished our school we replaced our interactive whiteboards, which had never really worked, with interactive projectors that project straight from the teacher’s laptop onto what we call a Learning Wall. We also used those projectors in other locations for displays, such as motivational quotes on corridor walls or pictures of authors and books in the library. With digital display, it’s easy to keep it constantly changing, which increases engagement; people notice and look, they don’t just walk past like they would with a static display board, there’s no waste and you stop having to buy endless staple guns.”

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One step at a time…

Changing the habits of a lifetime doesn’t happen overnight and kicking the sugar paper habit isn’t easy. Mike suggests taking baby steps.

  • Take one corridor, take everything off the walls and paint it white.
  • Paint one wall green to use as a green screen (you’ll also need an iPad and an iPad stand)
  • Buy a cheap data projector, mount it somewhere along your white corridor and start projecting messages, pictures, brilliant work, inspirational quotes… The possibilities are endless!

Inspiring Display Ideas

Speech bubbles: visitors use these wall-mounted dry-wipe speech bubbles to leave real-time feedback about their visit that pupils can read as they go past

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Inspiration wall: project inspiring images and quotes on on to the end wall of a corridor, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up”

Green screen wall: you don’t need an expensive green screen film studio, just a green wall and an iPad with a stand. Then you can send pupils off to make videos.

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Timeline Corridor: plot the key events of the last century with a timeline along one corridor, and get the children to add to it as time goes on.

Networked TV screens: placed at key points throughout the school displaying work, messages, photos and videos

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Mike Barnes is now an Educational Leadership Consultant specialising in technology. mikebarnes@mikeb3.co.uk @mcbcestrian

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