Tidy Up Time!

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Should pupils clean their own schools? 

If you don’t wash your hair for a few weeks then it starts to clean itself. A teacher I worked with  adopted the same rationale to his classroom and I can categorically report that it didn’t work – his classroom was a tip.

Classrooms don’t magically clean themselves and left to Mother Nature and the dynamic forces of 30 children things get messy because learning is a messy business. Cleaning staff have a tough job at the end of the day even if you do encourage good housekeeping habits in your class. Cleaning is a thankless task…or is it?

Spick And Span

All Singaporean students from primary school to junior college are required to clean classrooms, canteens and corridors daily, as part of a nationwide initiative to cultivate good habits for life. Xingnan Primary School is just one of many schools in Singapore where cleaning is now a daily activity. Pupils clean after assembly, in between lessons, before or after their breaks, or at the end of the school day. The Ministry of Education (MOE) implemented daily cleaning from the beginning of this year to promote good habits and inculcate values such as a sense of responsibility and consideration for others and it is working.

Education Minister for Education (Schools), Ng Chee Meng, said getting pupils involved in daily cleaning was a good way for them to understand about personal and social responsibility.

The MOE investigated similar practices from education systems in Japan and Taiwan, where cleaning is a daily routine for students. They have received extremely positive feedback from teachers, pupils and parents and other schools around the world are starting to take notice. So could this work in the UK?

Cleaning schools has always been an adult responsibility in the UK although the cry of “tidy up time” will be familiar to many in some schools. Whilst many teachers do encourage tidiness in their classrooms, pupils as cleaners is unheard of on the scale being exercised in Singapore.

Character Building

Implementing a daily cleaning routine certainly puts all pupils, and teachers, on an equal footing as everyone has a responsibility for keeping their school shipshape. Cleaning fits into character and citizenship education because it teaches pupils how to become members of society and taking responsibility.

Cleaning is another feature of educating the whole person because cleaning is a basic life skill – children learn to clean up after themselves rather than presume someone else will do it.

By owning their environment and seeing a school as ‘our’ school, children learn to respect where they are and their place in it. Cleaning up the grit can not foster resilience and cooperation but it makes them proud of their surroundings and this instills a mindset they take outside of school to society at large and their homes. It also develops personal efficacy and helps children see that their own actions can and do make a difference.


The countries that engage pupils in school cleaning are primarily Asian countries with a Buddhist tradition. Singapore may be leading the way but pupils cleaning their own classrooms has been a tradition of Japanese education since the Meiji era from 1868 to 1912. Japanese schools are famous for 0-soji (cleaning).

In some schools, pupils wear slippers before going into their classrooms so that dirt and grime aren’t dragged into their learning space and it keeps everywhere cleaner. Cleaning will happen at different times within a day and a the public announcement system will play music that children and teachers sing along to.

Schools can decide how to do things for themselves and whilst every class is responsible for cleaning its own classroom, some classes may be tasked with cleaning two other places in the school. An older class might also be assigned another class to clean lower down the school and this fosters relationships and promotes role models. Cleaning in Japan is interwoven with the culture and related to the national character and has a key role in character building.

Make A Clean Sweep

We can draw the line when it comes to having children clean toilets but we can certainly go full-tilt and get them to clean up after themselves in class and around the school. Cleaning is a very powerful way of helping to build conscientious citizens, create self-reliance and focus on resilience – they also feed into studying.

Fundamental life skills can often be neglected when the focus is just on passing exams. Cleaning is part and parcel of a rich values education, but as Lucy Crehan says in her book Clever Lands.

“The effects of values education are not easily measurable. In data-driven education systems, this can mean that these effects are not valued, so less time is spent thinking about developing students traits and behaviours. Some say that this is how it should be – school is about making children cleverer, and nothing else.”

Talking about Japanese schools, Crehan says;

“… by deliberately developing student traits of studiousness and resilience, and visibly valuing effort and perseverance, you can increase those more measurable things like grades.”

There is far more to school than subject learning, so isn’t it about time we cleaned up our act and valued different types of education?

5 thoughts on “Tidy Up Time!

  1. Good perspective about teaching kids to tidy up after themselves in a classroom setting – I think these things need to carefully considered in education though…

  2. I absolutely agree; I always get students to clean up after each activity – more importantly during the busier days where we use lots of resources getting students to organise their desks in between activities! This is useful as it keeps students aware of their surroundings and focused on the next task rather than sitting in a pile of paper cut outs, rubbers, pencils and textbooks.

    Besides, saves us a job at the end of the day too! 🙂

  3. Absolutely. My pupils know that if they make a mess then they clean it up. It’s now at the stage that they help each other and clean up even if it wasn’t they who made the mess. They all say how much they appreciate that they can sit and work in a clean and tidy environment. The cleaners also very much appreciate it.

  4. Pingback: Dirty Schools

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