Education: Group therapy: a solution to the numbers game?

Don't panic, parents - the idea of mixed-age classes may not be such a bad thing to have on the agenda.
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As local authorities and primary school head teachers juggle numbers to meet the Government's targets for infant class sizes, there seems no doubt that the exercise will result in more young children being taught in mixed age classes. And there is equally little doubt that some parents and teachers are anxious about classes which do not neatly accommodate a single year group.

However, should they be so worried? Almost certainly not on the grounds that this is some sort of new and untried method. A substantial minority of primary schools are so small that they have no choice but to teach in mixed age groups, and others choose to do so because of what they see as the advantages of what is known as "family" grouping.

According to consultants Price Waterhouse Coopers, which undertook a survey on the effects of reducing class sizes for the Local Government Association last spring, 60 per cent of primary schools have at least one mixed age class, and 20 per cent of primary schools teach only in mixed age classes.

However, schools that have mixed age classes still maintain a clear division between infants in Key Stage 1 and juniors in Key Stage 2: only 2 per cent of the schools that were surveyed mixed children from both stages. And the majority of schools also try to keep their reception age children separate, although, according to findings from a recent survey by Jane Stout and Linda Thompson, 24 per cent of reception classes also include older children.

So, mixed age teaching is not new or uncommon. However, the question parents inevitably ask is whether it will damage or enhance their children's progress. And this depends on whether mixed age teaching is regarded by the school as a positive step or simply as making the best of a bad job to make the pupil numbers fit. In the latter case, where a small number of children are allocated out of their year, there may be justification for concern.

However, enthusiasts for family grouping claim that the system offers the opportunity for all children to work at their individual level, regardless of age, for younger children to be challenged intellectually by older classmates and for older children to consolidate work they have already learned, as well as the benefit of being taught by one teacher for longer than 12 months.

There are arguments on both sides. John Coe, of the National Association for Primary Education, is a supporter of family grouping - however, he admits that single age classes make coaching for SATs easier, so there is pressure on schools to move that way. "Family grouping does demand a more individualised approach, but there are plenty of people in the schools who know how to do it and how to do it well."

But there is undoubtedly pressure from the centre, particularly from Ofsted, to organise in year groups unless mixed age teaching is absolutely unavoidable. In Oxfordshire, a county once devoted to family grouping, most large primary schools have now given it up, in many cases reluctantly. Both the National Curriculum and the National Literacy Hour take a single- year class as the norm, which may seem optimistic given the high proportion of mixed age classes which already exist.

Some schools that are now forced into - or back to - mixed age groups may need help to make the change, and the Department for Education and Employment is assuming that local authority plans for smaller class sizes will take this into account. In Scotland, where 26 per cent of primary children are taught in "composite" classes, the challenge is recognised by a lower legal limit of 25 on class sizes, instead of the maximum of 30 for single-year groups.

What little evidence is available suggests that mixed age classes may be an advantage. Small primary schools- ones that have fewer than 100 children - significantly outperform the rest in the SATs, although they may teach in classes which include the whole range of children. Ofsted's inspection database makes comparisons like this possible, but officials are reluctant to draw any firm conclusions because of other major differences between the mainly rural schools and the rest.

However, another interesting interpretation of what actually works came from the National Foundation for Educational Research survey on grouping by ability, which was published just before Christmas. This showed that while streaming and setting in secondary schools had a negative effect on the performance of less able children, grouping, not necessarily by ability, in primary classes enhanced the performance of all ability groups.

This is not a message which is currently very fashionable, but the reality is that an increasing proportion of primary schools will soon be teaching classes in which whole-class instruction will be made more difficult by the age spread.

Fortunately, there is plenty of advice available for those who have to travel this road for the first time. The National Literacy Strategy briefs head teachers specifically on adapting the strategy for mixed-year classes and for small schools where teachers cannot readily offer the same curriculum to all children in the class at the same time. And the National Curriculum schemes of work, which are supplied by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, also suggest how lessons can be adapted to cater for the needs of more than one year group at a time.

Suggestions include a rolling two-year curriculum cycle for classes which contain two year groups, differentiated for children who are either markedly ahead or markedly behind the class norm and paying special attention to the needs of reception-age children if they are taught with older age groups. The Teachers Guide to Science in Primary Schools, for instance, explains how units of work can be organised over a two-year cycle in mixed classes. The message to parents seems to be: don't panic.

`Older pupils can help the young' FELICITY STARKEY is head of Motcombe Infants School, in Eastbourne, which the local education authority is proposing to expand from nine classes to 12 to avoid having to teach in mixed age classes. Her main concern is to avoid classes that combine reception age children with older age groups.

"I don't think it is possible to give four-year-olds either the curriculum or the environment they need if they are alongside children who have started more formal learning. The demands of Key Stage 1 are not appropriate for younger children. They do not have the concentration to cope with literacy or numeracy hours.

"Here we are lucky to have spacious classes for our reception children and a dedicated play area where we can concentrate on a proper early years curriculum. Their development is so variable that they have to be in a setting which takes their individual maturity and cognitive development into account.

"It is all to do with having high but appropriate expectations. I honestly think it would be easier to put Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 children in a single class than reception year children and five- and six-year-olds.

"However, in my experience mixed age classes can meet a parental backlash anyway. Parents are very worried that their children may be held back."

SUE SAYLES is head of Riccall County primary school in north Yorkshire, serving a medium-sized village on the edge of an old mining area where the school has a socially mixed intake.

Riccall has 222 children in eight classes which are organised into family groups because that is what Sue and her staff believe is the most effective way of teaching them. Children start in a dedicated reception class and then move into one of two classes for Years 1 and 2, two classes for Years 3 and 4, and, at present, three classes for Years 5 and 6.

"I moved here from a two-teacher school, where I had to teach seven- to-11-year-olds in one class, so I am very used to planning carefully and matching work to children's individual needs. Here staff work in planning teams and organise the curriculum according to a two-year rolling programme, and we will deal with the literacy and numeracy hours in exactly the same way.

"What the two-year age span gives you is great flexibility in placing children in appropriate groups, close team work between staff and the freedom of only having to get to know half a class each year.

"It enables staff to get to know classes very well and makes assessment much easier.

"Of course, differentiation is very important, but the ability span is not necessarily any greater than in a single-age class - six- and seven- year-olds can be on Level W or Level 5 either way.

"The children benefit enormously. The older ones are challenged by having to help the younger ones on occasion. They mature enormously.

"And the younger ones benefit from being exposed to texts and ideas they would not meet in a single-age class. Our parents are convinced that this approach really works."