Say what you like about Hogwarts but it’s difficult to deny its ‘old school’ charm struck a chord with millions of avid readers both young and old. Amongst the many effects of Harry Potter in our education system was the revival, or re-emergence, in the state sector at least, of that gloriously stereotypical mainstay of public education: houses.
Having been fortunate enough to spend a career working across a rich variety of settings, centres and schools – both private and state led – I have seen many examples of the house system; and many examples of both the best – and the most pointless – systems and what they do or don’t achieve.
In schools, the many primaries I have visited in the Isle of Man and the U.K. have almost all had a house system of sorts up their tunic-laden sleeves. The most effective schools with the most effective house systems use this to promote teamship, comradery, community and healthy competition. When it works, it works because it fits the school and is well understood by pupils, staff, parents and all other partners. I won’t knock that.
However, the more common picture in my experience is one of ancient house systems that are largely, or completely, ignored, save for sports day. A few schools throw in ‘team points’ or similar which results in a termly cup being presented to no-one in particular other than a band of wildly cheering children, wildly cheering because they don’t know what else to do when ‘blue’ is called out at the front of assembly.
We had a house system at my school. But it achieved so little of what it set out to do. A rethink was called for. House Avada Kedavra!
What we do is regularly suspend the normal timetable and vertically group the whole school. By regularly I mean every couple of terms or so. There is not a rigid timetable. The groupings of children from EYFS through to Year 6 work across a series of ‘workshops’ over 2 or 3 days around an agreed theme. The benefits of collaboration, the sense of togetherness, and the ‘team spirit’ are focussed through the lens of learning. Through this approach the purported benefits of house systems become more real and vivid.
Over the years we have tweaked and refined the theme-days concept – ever evaluating, ever improving – but one thing is certain. The vertical grouping across the school brings the children together in a remarkable way. It is one of those things that isn’t instantly articulated; rather it is sensed, felt… a palpable joy and magic. The coming together of family.
We’ve held theme-days around local celebrations (such as our parish lighthouse reaching the ripe old age of 100), curriculum areas like art, R.E and science, whole-school trips and outings; and cultural and world events. Can we factor in competition? You bet! Can we foster leadership in our children? Just wait til you see our juniors supporting the infants in their learning. Can we achieve through teamwork, team spirit and collaboration? Look at some of the outcomes which are often greater than the sum of their parts.
We do theme-days properly and we do them justice. I say ‘we’ but of course I refer to my fabulous teachers and support staff who think, deliberate, plan and lead these fantastic learning experiences. The credit is theirs.
But here’s the thing: why does this work better at achieving all of the above than a house system? It’s because all partners in the school, from myself through to the staff and the parents and pupils, all believe in it, understand it, value it and treat it seriously. That’s our magic wand. There is no evidence of the ‘tokenistic’ so akin to the occasionally dusted off house system that lurks in so many schools.
I finish where I started. I’m not knocking the house system that works: merely observing that in most cases in state primaries it doesn’t. Not really. Not truly. Not hand on heart. And I don’t advocate my school’s approach is for everyone. My advocacy is for things that relate and matter and work for you. For your setting.
So despite the mass appeal of Potter and co. remember this: you don’t need to be a wizard to work the magic of community and comradery in your school, and a ‘house’ need not be your spell. You just need to believe.