David Howe, the VC of governors at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, writes for Prep School Magazine on the importance of common rooms and how they have become endangered.
In October 2015, the TES ran an article on the demise of the school staffroom or ‘common room’, that small curtained room where not on duty could retreat at breaks and lunchtimes, for what? We never really knew. Now, for much of the day, it can be empty. There is a clutch of possible inter-related reasons, such as:
- Staff do not need to be called in regularly anymore to check notice boards or collect mail from pigeon-holes; most of this can now be done electronically.
- More departments have a suite of classrooms that includes a departmental office. Why spend over half of a morning break walking across school to get a cup of tea when you can just nip down the corridor? This welcomes a chance for a hot cup of something and a quick exchange of departmental business.
- One can, or could, avoid daily contact with that group of staffroom grumblers for whom school life was getting worse and discipline is chaos. Even if they were right, one does not always want to hear it every day.
What of the one, or one and a bit, teacher departments, does it elevate the notion of belonging to a department above that of belonging to a school? What of the staffroom of yesteryear; gossip, last night’s television, the Times crossword. Is daily school life just too busy now? I once visited hundreds of staffrooms in primary, secondary and special schools. I have drunk many dubious liquids purporting to be coffee, sometimes faintly smelling of tomato soup. I have caused minor consternation at the request for a spoon. All this has been more than compensated for by sight of the remains of someone’s birthday cake or the leftover chocolate biscuit that is selflessly offered to me. We never really knew what went on in the Lawrence Sheriff staffroom; net curtains hid all. Knocks on the door elicited an irascible bark: ‘Yes? What?’ ‘No, he’s not here’.
At one school, a teacher once answered requests with a completely invented response: ‘He’s not here. I think you’ll find that he’s painting the flagpole behind the canteen.’ The pupils never returned and that was the intention. Would it matter if all staffrooms disappeared? Does its presence aid cross-departmental fertilisation of ideas? Where else might one dry wet socks?
Each school I knew used to operate unwritten but powerfully enforced staffroom protocols. In some schools, the head never entered: ‘It’s their space; they need somewhere to sound off about how useless I am’, one head told me, cheerfully. Other heads would always knock first, again, as a warning against any indiscreet character assassinations. Others came in and went out freely: ‘It’s a staffroom, and I am just as much a member of staff as they are’, said one, firmly.
Many primary schools of yesterday would welcome parents and grandparents to, for example, help children with their reading. They were greeted on arrival and thanked on departure, but never invited into the staffroom. Other schools had a similar tacit rule about non-teaching staff such as technicians. On an inspection at Bishop Wulstan School, which is now closed and the buildings part of Lawrence Sheriff School, I and other colleagues were taken on arrival on a Monday morning to the staffroom. “This will be your base for the week. You can make tea and coffee here at any time,” announced the head. I was unsure as to whether to take this placement as a refreshing example of openness or as a disconcerting lack of privacy. As I was about to leave, I noticed a teacher:
“Excuse me,” I muttered to the head, “who is that lady over there? I think I know her.”
“That’s Mrs Roberts, our needlework teacher.”
At that moment the bell went, and she stood up and moved towards me:
“Excuse me but should I know you? Your face is familiar,” she said.
Every break and lunchtime from then on, in snatched conversations, we would try to work out how we knew one another. Then, I asked where she lived:
“Cromwell Road, on the edge of town, for 30 years now,” she replied.
“I know how we knew each other. I used to deliver your papers.”
I then knew any ‘street cred’ I might have had as an inspector was blown. The staff would soon be dismissing me as ‘Mrs Roberts’ old paper boy’. After that, I advised teachers terrified about an impending inspection: ‘pick on the inspector who looks most fearsome and just tell yourself that he is probably no more than someone’s jumped up paper boy.’
Psychology? Sociology? Corporate values? Experience? Biscuits? Cake? They were all around in your ‘average’ staffroom in those soon to be forgotten days.
Read more articles in the latest issue of Prep School magazine here!
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