Walk into St Paul's and St Timothy's RC infant school in Liverpool and brace yourself. Everywhere you look, you seem to be seeing double. The place is teeming with twins.
Is it a coincidence? A weird cluster? Something in the drinking water? There's no single explanation for the glut of twins at this suburban school - 14 pairs in all, including nine sets in reception alone. But headteacher Maria Eves and her staff are less concerned with the whys than the hows. And particularly with how to help these tiny twosomes develop their identities, intellects and social skills separately while at the same time ensuring they feel secure and happy.
Separation and security don't necessarily go hand in hand when children have been inseparable since conception. They often will have been fed, bathed, changed, played and talked to together since birth, been dressed in identical clothes, shared not only a bedroom but, often, a bed. They will have been each other's closest and often exclusive playmate and may have shared their own secret language. They will have been perceived as a pair rather than as individuals by most people and always been compared with each other. A father of identical twin daughters interviewed by a researcher admitted: "I've never been able to tell them apart."
Staff at St Paul's and St Timothy's understand twins. And they make sure they are treated as individuals. Maria Eves asks the twins' parents what they want for their children at school. All say they want them to be together. So together they are grouped -two sets each in three classes, and three sets in one.
As all children wear name tags at the start of the year, there is no risk that twins will be singled out for special treatment by being the only ones who have to wear their names on their uniforms - which happens in some schools. Staff call each twin by name and never refer to them as "the twins" - not to their faces, anyway. To help tell them apart, staff note any differences. Even in the case of identical twins, they can remember that, for example, one twin's shoes have a silver bar at the back when the other's don't, or that one's hair is in plaits and the other has a ponytail.
As the teachers have learned to see them as separate people, the children themselves are, says Ms Eves, "gaining confidence, with their individual personalities and abilities beginning to shine through". She says: "Each twin is now working independently from the other and developing his or her own friends."
But the teachers are keeping an eye on signs of twins becoming over-dependent on each other. They've seen it happen with twins who previously attended the school. "With one pair last year, whenever one of them went out of sight, the other would become anxious. Another set were so dependent on each other that they would insist on sitting on the same chair and would follow each other around the room. For teachers, it's crucial to get a balance between respecting their emotional needs and dependencies and encouraging their individuality," says Ms Eves.
While some twins can't function as individuals when they first enter school, others display a sometimes fierce competitiveness. Class teacher and head of reception Loretta Morley, who has three sets of twins in her class, describes a common occurrence. "If one twin has a say in class, the other insists on speaking up, too. Neither will be left out."
Sometimes, the competitiveness is less healthy. According to Pat Preedy, headteacher of Knowle C of E primary in Solihull, who is working on a PhD on twins: "Because they measure themselves and compete against each other, one will sometimes drop out of the competition altogether, feeling a failure compared with the other. Or they can rebel against each other. If one is a 'good child', the other takes on the role of 'bad child'. This is particularly true with same-sex twins - they tend to polarise themselves to establish distinctive identities."
Ms Preedy has conducted the largest UK study to date on the educational needs of multiple-birth children. Her interest was sparked off in 1992, when nine sets of twins entered her school.
When she set about looking for educational research on twins, she found very little. She concluded that "there was a large group of children and their families whose needs we were not meeting". So she decided to try to bridge the gap.
Her findings provide striking insights into twins and multiple births and the extent to which schools have failed to recognise their needs. Focusing on 3,000 primary schools containing almost 12,000 twins, 117 sets of triplets and five sets of quads, she found little evidence of communication between schools and parents or the twins themselves about the best way to organise their education.
Fewer than one school in three consulted parents about their wishes, and just 9 per cent talked with children about what they wanted. Only 1 per cent of schools had a policy on multiple-birth children, although many had strong views on whether to separate or keep them together.
She also interviewed 25 multiple-birth families in Solihull whose children had recently started school to learn about their pre-school life and what their needs might be. Surprisingly, Ms Preedy found that although few twins had been separated before going to school, most parents believed their children would be unaffected by separation - although they clearly had no basis for this belief. Half were dressed the same by their parents, 20 per cent of whom said they had no desire to make the children distinguishable from each other.
When asked how they felt about their children's schooling, parents said they were happy if their children were happy. While this is a response most parents of young children would endorse, when it comes to twins there is, warns Ms Preedy, cause for concern. Twins and multiple-birth children may find settling down difficult if they are separated for certain activities. They may be distracted from their work if their sibling is not by their side, for instance. Or one child may be happy and the other not. "There needs to be discussion about how each child presents in school and at home, and what is the nature of their distress. It may be that short-term pain (for instance, separation) is necessary for long-term gain. Each case must be considered on its merits," says MsPreedy.
Asked how they feel about being a twin, pupils at St Paul's and St Timothy's give a variety of resposes. Alexandra, whose twin is Georgina, says: "We always sit next to each other in class." But when asked why, she shrugs her shoulders. "Because I just do."
For Rhea, being a twin means "always getting your photograph taken", which is what they have all been getting a lot of as a result of media interest in this year's bumper crop of twins at the school. But her brother Cameron is a bit more circumspect about the whole matter. In fact, he puts his finger on the point many adults tend to overlook, dazzled as we often are by the novelty and cuteness: "I'm a twin," he says, "but I'm a kid as well."
TWO TIMES TABLE
* According to 1999 figures, one child in 35 is a twin.
* This represents a doubling in the numbers of twins and multiple births in the UK over the past 15 years.
* Explanations for the rise include:
an increase in the number of women having babies after the age of 30, when an extra hormone, gonatrophin, releases two eggs in what is known as a fertility spurt;
the rise in numbers of children conceived by in-vitro fertilisation treatment, which increases the chance of live multiple birth by 30 per cent;
improved survival rates of premature babies, especially twins and multiple births.
* Assessments at the start and end of reception year show literacy and numeracy skills are the same for twins and singles.
* Being a twin increases a boy's chance of suffering attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
DOUBLE OR QUITS
The Twins and Multiple Births Association suggests:
* Twins like and need to be treated as individuals. Make sure children and staff avoid calling them "the twins" or referring to their similarities and differences.
* Close contact with parents from the outset will aid your understanding of twins' personalities and help you distinguish between the two.
* Twins who start school in the same class usually settle in more easily than other children because they feel secure.
* Once they grow accustomed to school, they can be moved to separate tables and encouraged to act independently of each other.
* The move to junior school is a good time to separate them unless there is undue anxiety on either twin's part.
* Early separation may be best if:
one twin believes he or she is less clever than the other. The child may stop trying altogether;
twins appear to be working at exactly the same level. They may be working below capability;
parents are anxious about one child lagging behind the other; both twins or one who is underachieving are using disruption to gain attention;
a girl in a mixed gender set of twins progresses faster than her brother. She may mollycoddle the boy;
over-dependency is hindering social and intellectual development; competitiveness, which can be good, becomes too fierce.