Tutor groups: The benefits of mixing different ages in form groups
Vertical tutor groups - Radical remix
Creating form groups with pupils of different ages may seem unnatural, but they improve relationships and prepare them for the working world. Nick Morrison reports
Refusing to return to class, gathering names for a petition, launching a Facebook protest group - it must be a fairly major upheaval to cause so much pupil unrest, not simply a clampdown on mobile phones or regulations on jewellery.
The roots of these examples of agitation lie in a small and often overlooked part of the school routine: a change to the daily tutorial.
Tutorial time takes up only 20 minutes or so a day, but can be an island of stability in a pupil’s voyage through school. While classmates change as pupils are separated by ability and subject choice, tutorial groups - or form groups or registration forms - are constant. Their members stay virtually the same over five years of secondary education.
However, ever more schools want to move away from the traditional tutor group, and an increasingly popular option is mixed age groups. Rather than pupils being drawn from a single year, the groups are a cross-section of a few pupils from each year. It has been dubbed vertical tutoring.
The Henry Cort Community College in Fareham, Hampshire, is one of the latest to choose this approach and will switch to vertical tutor groups from September. It also plans to increase the number of tutor groups, which in turn will be smaller. With about 15 children in each group, tutors will be able to give each child extra attention.
“We wanted to do something to improve the support we were offering to the children,” says Phil Munday, the headteacher. “Academically we do very well, but one issue we weren’t sure we were getting absolutely right was whether each child gets enough individual support.” Vertical tutor groups allow form tutors to give children more attention at key times, rather than pupils dealing with issues en masse, its proponents argue.
“There are certain pressure points for particular year groups, and if you have a tutor group of different ages, you can focus on different year groups at different times,” Mr Munday says. This might be transition for Year 7 pupils, choosing options for Year 9s or sorting out work experience places for Year 10s.
The initial reaction from the Henry Cort College pupils was less than enthusiastic. Police had to be called when pupils refused to return to class when the plans were unveiled at the end of last term.
Mr Munday says much of the discontent revolved around a misconception that the new groups would apply beyond tutorial time and pupils would not be able to spend their breaks and lunchtimes with friends. There was also a belief that it could lead to more bullying.
However, once the full implications were explained, the pupils accepted the change, he says. Children will be able to choose who they want to be in their tutor group, and Year 11s will remain in their existing forms to avoid disruption in their exam year.
Mr Munday also believes it will lead to less bullying, rather than more. “Older children will feel more of an affinity with the younger ones,” he says.
Neville Lovett Community College, just two miles from Henry Cort College, introduced vertical tutoring last September. Julie Taylor, the headteacher, says the children have responded well to the change. “It has improved relationships between different year groups,” she says.
“There’s much better behaviour at break times because everyone knows each other now,” says Sarah Crowe, a geography teacher.
“The years were separate but now everyone gets on a lot better,” agrees Charlotte, 15, a Year 10 pupil.
Emma, 14, says it has given the older children a feeling of responsibility for the younger ones in their group. “The Year 11s and Year 10s have taken it upon themselves not to swear in front of the Year 7s,” she says. She adds that older pupils in her sister’s form group keep an eye on a younger boy who is being bullied.
Emma says pupils were initially suspicious of the change. “There were petitions and people saying they were going to move schools,” she says. “It did cause quite a lot of upset.” The system took a couple of months to get used to, she says, but pupils are now more likely to make friends with people in other year groups.
Fulford School in York had its own experience of pupil opposition to vertical tutoring last term. After Stephen Smith, the headteacher, announced plans to introduce the system from September, one pupil launched a petition, while another set up a Facebook group, both calling for the plans to be scrapped. The boys were invited to visit schools that have vertical tutoring groups, and Mr Smith says both came back converts to the system. The Facebook-savvy pupil has now set up a group in support of the change, while the petition organiser now gives presentations to other pupils about the benefits of vertical tutoring.
Much of the pupils’ concern was over being split up from their friends, Mr Smith says, but they were reassured when they were told they could nominate people to be in their tutor groups. The reaction was overwhelming: when details of how this would work went online, the school’s website collapsed under the weight of hits from pupils.
One of the benefits of vertical tutoring is that it gives responsibility to older pupils, encouraging them to develop leadership skills. Mr Smith says this is particularly important for pupils outside the small number who get involved in existing structures, such as school councils. “There is a great opportunity for a large number of pupils, who maybe don’t often get their skills recognised, to help support and mentor other pupils,” he says.
As at Henry Cort College, the change to vertical tutoring at Fulford School will be accompanied by a reduction in the size of tutor groups, from 28 to about 20. The sixth formers will remain in their existing groups, although they will be attached to the new tutor groups for some of the tutorial time, which occupies 20 minutes in the afternoon.
The opportunity for peer mentoring is one of the principal benefits of vertical tutoring, agrees the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which recommended the practice in a report last year. A survey of 400 schools for the trust found that 55 per cent had either a house system or all-age tutor groups, or planned to introduce them. “Schools have found that integrating students of all ages … has a positive effect on behaviour,” the trust says.
Some of this improvement is down to increased familiarity between pupils of different year groups, says Steven Farmer, an assistant headteacher at Methwold High near Thetford, Norfolk, which introduced vertical tutoring last July. Having mixed age groups helps to allay younger pupils’ fear of older children and gives older pupils the chance to look after younger ones, he says.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of seeing pupils of different ages every day. It makes them used to associating with different ages,” he says.
It can also ease the burden on teachers, he says. In his own form, Mr Farmer has three, rather than 30, Year 11 pupils to worry about when it comes to preparing for GCSE exams. “It provides scope for personalising children’s education,” he says.
Tutorial time - half an hour at the end of the school day at Methwold High - gives children the chance to learn skills such as first aid and problem solving, as well as take part in team competitions. Older pupils can show their leadership skills in helping younger children, for example through the Eric (Everybody Reading in Class) scheme, while younger ones have role models to look up to.
“Rather than having a lot of wasted time at the end of the day, it has become a positive experience,” says Mr Farmer.
One tutorial form is composed of gifted and talented children, who can take part in activities designed specifically for them, and there are five all-boys groups, focusing on raising achievement among middle-ability pupils.
Methwold High decided not to give the children the chance to nominate other members of their form; instead staff chose who would be in each group. “We were able to look at the combinations of pupils we thought would work, which was quite a luxury,” says Mr Farmer.
Royds Hall High in Huddersfield adopted vertical tutoring at the end of the summer term last year too. As well as allowing tutors to spend more time with pupils at key times, again helped by smaller tutor groups, it also fosters a family feeling, says Melanie Williams, the headteacher. “Getting older pupils to work alongside younger ones reflects family life much more and gives them a chance to get to know people of different ages,” she says.
The atmosphere in school altered significantly once the vertical system was in place, she says. “You see pupils of different ages sitting chatting in the dining room.”
Although there were no petitions at Royds Hall High, Miss Williams admits some pupils were cagey about the change at first, but reaction since it was introduced has been overwhelmingly positive.
The impact of vertical tutoring has prompted the school to also introduce vertical teaching. Starting in the last few weeks of this term, for five hours a week pupils in Years 9, 10 and 11 will have lessons in one option subject in mixed age groups. It will allow pupils to take a GCSE at the end of one year’s studying. If this trial proves a success, it could be extended to the core subjects of English, maths, science and information technology.
Miss Williams says the impetus for vertical teaching came from the pupils. “They were asking why they had to wait until Year 11 to take a GCSE and why they were in vertical tutor groups but were taught separately,” she says. “It is a bit of a leap when you’ve spent all your career teaching different year groups, but we’re convinced this is right for the pupils. It’s an exciting time for us.”
Given the momentum behind vertical tutoring, it was only inevitable that vertical teaching would be the next step. Perhaps it’s not too hard to imagine a world where teaching children in different age groups will come to be seen as an anachronism, as bizarre as splitting employees into different age groups would seem now.
MAKE VERTICAL TUTORING WORK
- Make sure you are properly advised and staff are properly trained and prepared. Ensure they understand the golden rules of vertical tutoring.
- Contact at least one school that has experience of this innovation. Arrange a fact-finding visit, usually for a mixture of staff, pupils and governors.
- Liaise with your staff and governors throughout when you have detailed information.
- Arrange for staff discussion and training in your school.
- Arrange a visit for your pupils to talk to other students in vertical tutoring groups, perhaps at a partner school, and to give feedback.
- Arrange for feedback to pupils and parents.
- Set a clear timetable for change.