Circles, PSHE and Citizenship: Assessing the Value of Circle Time in Secondary School


Marilyn Tew, Mary Read & Hilary Potter

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  • About the Author

    Marilyn Tew is a freelance consultant, trainer and facilitator and is currently working with Antidote to shape learning environments that offer young people the best possible opportunity to achieve and make a positive contribution. She has worked with schools nationally and internationally across all phases and recently spent a year working as an Assistant Head Teacher in a large secondary school in the UK. For the past eight years, she has had a special interest in the relevance of group work, emotional literacy and Circle Time to PSHE.

    Mary Read was Assistant Head Teacher at Hayesfield School in Bath for fifteen years. She has taught for over twenty-five years, developing a particular interest in the holistic education of children, enabling students to live and learn with good emotional and physical health. Specialising in Philosophy and Beliefs and PSHE from ages 11 to 18 she has taught through circles for many years. She is currently continuing to teach part-time at Hayesfield School as well as writing and working as a trainer nationally.

    Hilary Potter has direct and recent experience of teaching and training across a range of educational settings, heading departments, teams and advising colleagues. These include working in all phases and particularly with disaffected adolescents, their families and teachers. She has travelled widely and came across Circle Time in the United States. She has a particular interest in emotional literacy and is currently researching in this field.


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    The achievements of the Faculty of Self, Health and Exercise at Hayesfield School from 1998 to 2003 would not have been possible without the encouragement and support given by the then Head Teacher John Batholomew. Our thanks go to him for facilitating this work. Thank you too to the PSHE teaching team for their professionalism, enthusiasm and good humour. They turned a job into a pleasure over the five years of the project. Finally, we need to acknowledge that Circle Time would not be possible without the willing engagement of the pupils. So our thanks go to them for making Circle Time special and for joining us in reviewing their experiences.


    The publication of Circles, PSHE and Citizenship is a milestone in the history of Circle Time. For many years, Circle Time has been widely used in primary schools yet it is still a relatively unknown learning process at secondary level. This practically oriented book makes a case for the use and benefits of Circle Time in secondary schools, particularly in connection with personal social and health education (PSHE) and Citizenship curricula.

    The authors – Marilyn Tew, Mary Read and Hilary Potter – draw on in-depth experiences of implementing Circle Time in several secondary schools and research in one school over five years. Their approach is to set the adoption of Circle Time in the context of challenges in whole-school development in which the PSHE and Citizenship curriculum can be brought alive and become relevant to students' engagement in their personal and social learning, enabling and empowering them to grow, change and develop. The authors unpack the ecology of teaching and learning in circles, making explicit some of the hidden qualities of good pedagogy and the support teachers need in order to extend their practices.

    While considering some underlying theoretical concepts of Circle Time, such as self-esteem, locus of control and learning relationships, the text focuses on practical issues and the tips that teachers need to run effective learning in circles. Structure is critical to successful Circle Time, with different phases (beginning, middle and closing) and variations in routine, groupings and use of other strategies within the circle. A major section offers lesson plans for PSHE and Citizenship through Circle Time for 11- to 18-year-olds, dealing with such relevant topics as bullying, body image, sexual issues, rules and risks. The authors describe many games and resources to support participation and exploration in the process of learning in the circle. Skills of listening and speaking, developing an atmosphere of honesty and trust in the group and individual authenticity are essential to the handling of sensitive and controversial issues and the examination of attitudes and values which are at the heart of adolescence.

    This guidebook demonstrates how the techniques of Circle Time, rooted in primary education, can be adapted to bridge the gap and provide continuity between primary and secondary schools' approaches to PSHE and Citizenship, where group-based learning and student participation are key. It offers much-needed sources and support for PSHE specialists, Heads of Year and House and all teachers who seek to be inclusive of students in their social and personal education at a time when they are developing their own voices and a greater awareness of learning contexts and relationships. Undertaken well, Circle Time can be an effective, valuable and valued strategy for PSHE and Citizenship learning. This clearly written book offers models based in experience which can be easily adapted by teachers to aid the social and emotional aspects of learning so complementary to the academic curriculum.

    Monica J.Taylor Editor, Journal of Moral Education Research Associate, University of London, Institute of Education


    I have noticed that there are two main types of educational initiatives. The first come from the ‘top’, are introduced blanket fashion countrywide, and often cause much stress to the people who have to implement them. They are often changed at vast expense while bringing little benefit to the pupils. The other kind come from the other end of the spectrum. They often start in one place, where they are welcomed by the people who wish to initiate them, have minimal cost implications and bring huge rewards to the pupils. As you may well guess, Circle Time was one of the latter initiatives in the UK, which may account for its current popularity among teachers and why it takes place in so many classrooms around the land.

    As far as I'm aware, Circle Time began when I realised that the well-planned academic curriculum, even when offered by enthusiastic and competent teachers, was not enough to cater for the true needs of the children. If they were going to feel emotionally stable enough to want to learn and behave well, a new approach was necessary. So the children sat on the floor in a circle and I sat with them as the first Circle Time took place. The strategy that I used came from my experiential studies in humanistic psychology and knowledge of similar work being done in other countries. From virtually the first moment, the first laugh, the first look of understanding, the first one of concentration, the first smile of one child to another, it became obvious that something of great value was taking place. Daily Circle Times followed in all the classes in the school and the statements of staff who began to see the changes in their charges confirmed that the time involved in this practice was being invested well. Over time, educational advisers showed interest and others came to join in the circles and workshops and so awareness of Circle Time increased throughout Cambridgeshire and then beyond.

    When, in 1989, my article ‘Magic Circles’ was published in the TES there was a massive positive response from readers from abroad as well as the UK and an acknowledgement of the value of the participation of pupils in Circle Times was well established. The tremendous potential they had for good in the lives of children was clearly recognised by many teachers who adopted the idea and began to conduct their own circles. Now, nearly 20 years later, Circle Time gets official recommendations in government literature.

    This book is a first-class contribution to the ever-expanding literature on Circle Time and I welcome it for two reasons.

    In the first instance, self-esteem is a much-maligned term and advocates who promote its importance for young people constantly face criticism from many people who use myths and misunderstandings to make their case. It is easy to find research in support of self-esteem, however. The conclusion of the 1970 British Cohort Study, published in July 2003, states that children with plenty of self-esteem enjoyed better chances of success as adults. Dr Neil Smelser, co-editor of The Social Importance of Self-Esteem, reviewed over 30,000 studies and concluded that low self-esteem was the root cause of many social problems. He believed, as I do, that self-esteem is central to ameliorating many of the problems we see in schools today. If you are a teacher and can invest in the time to obtain the skills to facilitate great Circle Times, you will have the tremendous satisfaction of seeing so many of the positive qualities you wish for your pupils emerge and flourish.

    Secondly, for a long time Circle Time was thought of only as a primary school activity. Now the authors of this volume, and others, recognise that secondary school pupils should not be denied the advantages that taking part in this process can give them. Mary Read, with wise advice and help from consultants Marilyn Tew and Hilary Potter, have successfully incorporated it into their school organisation in Bath and written this as a guide for others to do the same. I hope many will read it and be inspired to do so. It is well structured and easy to find your way about. For newcomers it has a clear exposition of what you need to take into account so that you and your pupils will gain much from the experience. If you already conduct Circle Time, it has lots of good ideas and suggestions for you to use.

    Circle Times have a lot going for them. Whether you have low self-esteem or high self-esteem there is always something to be gained by taking part. In circles I have run, I've witnessed good things happen for the youngest child and the oldest grownup. I would recommend Circle Times for parents and their families, for learners of every age as they progress through the education system, and for all adults as they go through life.

    There should be a television advertisement telling everyone how good they are!

    MurrayWhite UK Representative, International Council for Self-Esteem
  • Resources and References

    Useful Books for Circle Games
    Mosley, J. and Tew, M. (1999) Quality Circle Time in the Secondary School. London: Fultan.
    Bliss, T. and Tetley, J. (1993) Circle Time: A Resource Book for Infant, Junior and Secondary Schools. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Bliss, T. and Robinson, G. (1993) Coming Round to Circle Time. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Bliss, T., Robinson, G. and Maines, B. (1995) Developing Circle Time. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Smith, C. (2003a) Introducing Circle Time to Secondary Students. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Smith, C. (2003b) More Circle Time for Secondary Students. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Smith, C. (2003c) Concluding Circle Time with Secondary Students. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Smith, C. (2004) Circle Time for Adolescents. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Cavert, C., Frank, L. and Friends (1999) Games & Other Stuff for Teachers: Classroom Activities that Promote Pro-Social Learning. Oklahoma City, OK: Wood ‘N’ Barnes.
    Dewar, R., Palser, K. and Notley, M. (1989) Games, Games, Games. London: The Woodcraft Folk.
    Epstein, R. and Rogers, J. (2001) The Big Book of Motivation Games: Quick, Fun Ways to Get People Energized. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Jones, A. (1998) 104 Activities That Build: Self-Esteem, Teamwork, Communication, Anger Management, Self-Discovery, and Coping Skills. Richland, WA: Rec Room Publishing.
    Kroehnert, G. (1991) Training Games. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Newstrom, J. and Scannell, E. (1998) The Big Book of Team Building Games: Trust-building Activities, Team Spirit Exercises, and Other Fun Things to Do. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Tamblyn, D. and Weiss, S. (2000) Big Book of Humorous Training Games (Big Book of Business Games Series). New York: McGraw-Hill.
    West, E. (1999) The Big Book of Icebreakers. New York: McGraw-Hill.
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co.
    Brophy, J. (1981) ‘Teacher praise: a functional analysis’, Review of Educational Research, 51, 1, 5–32.
    Burns, R. (1982) Self-Concept Development and Education. Dorset: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
    Canfield, J. (1990). ‘Improving students’ self-esteem: a focus on academic and moral values’, Educational Leadership, 48, 48–50.
    Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P., Tew, M., Jelfs, H., Randall, E., Prosser, G. and Temple, S. (2004) ‘The Ecology of Learning: a cross sectional exploration of relationships between learner-centred variables in five schools’ previous_papers
    Goldthorpe, M. (1998) Poems for Circle Time and Literacy Hour. London: LDA.
    Hannaford, C. (1994) Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. Arlington, VA: Great Ocean Publishers.
    Lees, J. and Plant, S. (2000) PASSPORT – A framework for Personal and Social Development. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.
    QCA (1999) The National Curriculum Key Stages 3 and 4. London: QCA.
    Taylor, M. J. (2003) Going Round in Circles: Implementing and Learning from Circle Time:Slough: NfER.
    Tew, M., Deakin Crick, R., Broadfoot, P. and Claxton, G. (2004) Learning Power: A Practitioner's Guide. Manchester: Lifelong Learning Foundation.
    Tuckman, in Napier, R. W. and Gershenfeld, M. K. (1973) Group Theory and Experience. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
    White, M. (1991) Self-esteem: Promoting Positive Practices for Responsible Behaviour – Circle-Time Strategies for Schools, Set A. Cambridge: Daniels Publishing.
    White, M. (1998) Magic Circles: Building Self-esteem through Circle Time. Bristol: Lucky Duck Publishing.
    Zimbardo, P. (1969) The Cognitive Control of Motivation: The Consequences of Choice and Dissonance. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.
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