Award winning teacher Phil Beadle explains why the seating plan is the single most important piece of behavioural modification equipment you have in your toolbox

There are different schools of thought on the seating plan. I have a particular methodology, which I’ll explain later, but first, a bit on why classroom organisation is the most important philosophical decision you will make in your career and why you should turn your face away from the darkness and towards the light.

Here’s a shock. You are not necessarily the cleverest person in your classroom. You may not even be in the top ten. Yes, you are the one with a degree. You are the bigshot,for now. But, let’s face it, you have no idea what the children in front of you may one day become. Something altogether more impressive than a piffling, cardiganclad, Cornish-pasty-shoe-wearing schoolteacher, perhaps?

Groups is the way to go

Any survey of students that asks them the important question, “How do you learn best?” finds the same answer at the top of the list. “Groups,” their replies will scream, with one impassioned voice. “We learn best in groups. WHY WON’T ANYONE LISTEN TO US?” Having your desks set out in groups is the right way to organise your classroom. Period. No discussion. No arguing.

Having the tables in groups allows you to set them the grouped speaking and listening activities that are the way in which they learn most effectively. Having your tables in groups lets them learn from each other. And having your tables in groups is a spatially symbolic move away from the Dickensian notion of the teacher standing at the front talking cobblers about really hard sums all day, every day.

Having your tables in five groups of six is the optimum classroom layout, in that it allows you to mix up the activities. You can do a paired activity, then one in threes, then one in groups without so much as a single moved chair. Not only is it convenient but it is good use of the classroom space. If you ensure that each group of tables is positioned as near to the boundaries of the classroom as is possible, whilst still allowing the kids at the edge to be able to breathe, you are left with a space in the middle of the classroom in which kids can do exciting kinaesthetic activities, or you can stand in the spotlight declaiming your own shockingly bad poetry in a fruity RSC bombast.

Having your tables in groups also allows you to implement a quite interesting piece of methodology, which I’ll explain now. Many years ago, when doing some work on boys’ achievement for the then DfES (Now the DfE) I chanced upon Ofsted’s report on the same issue, and actually read the bloody thing. In it there was a fascinating section about the seating plan (Christ! I really, really must do something about my work/lack of anything anywhere near resembling a life balance).

Boys and girls together

Ofsted suggest that the best way of getting serious work out of boys in a mixed school is getting them to sit with slightly lower ability girls. If they are sat with higher ability girls then they just go into learned helplessness mode and get the girls to do their work for them. If they are sat with girls of the same ability range they go all stupid and competitive. But if you sit them with girls they can help, they change character immediately: becoming nurturing, gentle, supportive and interested in their own attainment and that of others. I use this method now for every class I teach and, you know, it kind of works.

There are teething issues with implementing any new seating plan. This methodology doesn’t take account of existing relationships, for instance, and it may be that you’ve sat people on the same table who pathologically detest each other or, worse still, are the best of friends. But with the odd tweak it can be made to work. It has, at its base, the important basic that boys and girls must always be sat next to each other, and is a defensible methodology in terms of Ofsted or senior management asking probing questions of you. Of course, it’s useless in single-sex schools, and it relies on there being a critical mass of relatively high-attaining males in the class, which is not always so. It also condemns the highest ability girls to sit on a table with the three lowest attaining males. But this too has benefits, which you’ll find out once you implement it.

Do not go back on your word

The implementation of a seating plan can be bloody however, and you must be both rigourous and intractable, as the kids will seek to circumvent it. Any request from a student must be resolutely refused. “But Miss, I don’t like …” or, “We don’t get on …” must be treated as the irrelevant impertinence that it is. You decide where they sit, and you have arranged the seating plan to maximise their attainment not so they can sit gossiping with their best mate. You will find that within a lesson or so, they will attempt to just go and sit back in the place that they want to occupy, you have to call them on this immediately. Acceding to even a single request regarding where they sit will lead to chaos, and chaos is not what we’re after.

This excerpt is from Phil Beadle’s essential and irreverent guide to the classroom, How to Teach, ISBN: 9781845903930


Phil is an English teacher and he has won the UK Secondary Teacher of the year gong at the National Teaching Awards.  Check out Phil's teaching tips video on YouTube and have a look at his work with Teachers TV



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I like the idea of groups, but what do you do in a room like mine? I teach ICT and my class is set in fixed rows of computers facing the front. I hate it! There is no room for written work, no escape from the screen and the smaller students (especially in the lower years) are hidden behind screens. 

I love group work and constantly call for students to work together and help each other. I mean, its what I did at uni and it's certainly how I worked in industry, working in teams rather than alone.

It makes me want to cry! 

From: FarOutSi 17/1/2013
Whilst I agree with this idea, it isn't always practical. As a science teacher, there is often not enough room in labs for this sort of layout...
From: the_lady1468 14/10/2011
Groups for maths lessons? If it is a problem solving based task, then yes this can work. Allowing them to sit in tables just gives them more people to talk to in my experience.
From: Sunset 22/12/2011
Very sound advice. However, I teach ICT and a refit would cost too much and would not be possible unless I only had 24 pupils. I usually have 31.
From: kristov 12/1/2012
Excluding any references to considerable content......should it be acceptable to respond to a suggestion with "Christ" as an opening to a view of potential opposition? Just a thought! Content interesting, if not potentially a touch offensive to some readers. xx
From: handprint 18/4/2012
This is all very well - but I teach in a lab with rows of benches, fixed permanently to the floor with water pipes, gas pipes and electrical wires ensuring they can never be moved. Most science teachers do, of course.
From: wendys.jungle 18/11/2012

What century are we working in? Arranging groups to ensure a maximum learning environment for boys alone is beyond my understanding. The suggestion that boys will adopt a gentle and supportive role has not been my own experience over the last 18 years.  Is this supported by any research? 

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