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A step in the right direction?

Vertical learning - teaching pupils of different ages together - could help your school reach new heights

Vertical learning - teaching pupils of different ages together - could help your school reach new heights

According to its advocates, "vertical learning" - getting pupils of different ages to work together - is one of the most powerful interventions you can introduce into the classroom. Breaking away from traditional year groups can, they say, have a remarkable transformative effect on the quality of teaching and learning, as well as attendance and behaviour.

There is a surprising lack of in-depth academic research into the effects and benefits of vertical learning strategies, but the number of schools going vertical in some form is growing fast.

It started with vertical tutoring; the idea that smaller form groups comprising pupils of different ages can improve relationships and have a knock-on effect on everything else. Now more and more schools are adopting vertical methods for teaching, too.

This "stage not age" approach is becoming more common at GCSE level and a particularly popular model has Year 9-11 pupils sharing lessons in non-core subjects.

Former head Peter Barnard quite literally wrote the book on vertical tutoring. He pioneered and developed the concept in the UK 25 years ago, and today is the country's leading consultant on the subject. His vertical tutoring resources on the TES website have been viewed almost 20,000 times and he trains dozens of schools and local authorities every year.

He believes that traditional "horizontal" school systems, with their year-based approach to pastoral care, are defective and "broken", promoting negative learning relationships between pupils built on friendship and loyalty. Vertical tutoring, however, uses the power of mixed-age groups to enhance learning and switch on a child's "aspiration gene".

The only change a school needs to make is to introduce daily, 20-minute, mixed-age tutor sessions, with small groups of pupils and preferably two tutors. He claims that this small and carefully managed adjustment has a "domino effect", resulting in a complete transformation of the school's learning culture and capabilities.

"In a horizontal system, the tutor is all but destroyed by the system," he says. "A vertical system completely changes the relationship. The tutor is seen as a valued, critical part of a pupil's life and the esteem felt for the tutor is transferred to the classroom.

"If you train the older pupils in a leadership role, they become mentors to the younger ones. In a horizontal group you don't have that differentiation of leadership, or that richness and balance of respect that becomes more like a family.

"Older pupils model the tutor's behaviour and will take their new responsibilities incredibly seriously. The dynamics are such that everything gets better organically; you don't have to force it.

"Straight away by reducing the negative peer qualities of existing friendship groups and developing this mentoring role of older pupils, bullying and bad behaviour is stamped out, exclusions fall and attendance rises. It's a mistake to base the groups on friendship. Kids will make new friends, older friends, which makes the school a much friendlier, safer environment."

Parents as partners

Barnard believes it is important that vertical tutoring systems are built around parental partnerships so pupils get the best support possible.

Schools can then identify important times in a child's life when school, pupil and parent need to meet; a few months after transition into Year 7, for example, or when pupils are about to sit their GCSEs in Year 11.

"There's no real parent partnership in the horizontal system," says Barnard. "We need parents to be involved, we need information about pupils from their parents. If we can get together and exchange information at those critical times it forms another powerful, positive loyalty group around the child."

Barnard also believes vertical tutoring will kick-start vertical teaching, a practice that is currently not very widespread. "It started off at A level, where you would have mixed-aged pupils on the same courses," he says. "Now, instead of having a year-based teaching system, more schools are looking at all sorts of ideas where pupils take GCSEs a year or several years early.

"A lot of kids are turned off the examinations system early on in their lives, so by having them sit GCSEs earlier they become more used to it, and it's less daunting when they get to Year 11.

"What some schools are finding is that learning is increasing, outcomes are improving, and relationships in the classroom are getting better.

"With a vertical tutoring system you have the perfect backup for learning, which you wouldn't have if you went into vertical teaching on its own."

Transformative tutoring

One school that has taken this approach is City Academy Bristol, which is set to launch vertical teaching after seven years of successful vertical tutoring. The academy has tutorial groups of 16 pupils with one tutor - or learning facilitator - in each. They meet daily for 20 minutes and for 40 minutes on a Friday.

Principal Gill Kelly says that vertical tutoring has had a "dramatic" effect on pupils' behaviour and, most importantly, their aspirations.

"It is the single most transformative thing that we have done in school," she says. "The relationships and dynamics have vastly improved."

In September, the key stage 3 curriculum at the school will be shortened to two years and key stage 4 extended to three.

"We have constructed a curriculum that will help different pupils succeed at different times," Kelly says. "It will allow some to take a GCSE early because they can cope with it while others will be allowed a three-year experience.

"People talk a lot about Year 9 being a 'dip year'. We are trying to use our limited time with these young people differently so we don't have that."

Merging the age groups together in this way will also allow the academy to continue offering pupils undersubscribed courses like music and art, which otherwise might be unviable.

Vertical tutoring and teaching methodologies have caught on particularly well in South Wales secondary schools, according to Barnard.

At Abertillery Comprehensive they have taken the opposite approach to the one espoused by Barnard and practised by City Academy Bristol by launching vertical teaching first.

Deputy headteacher Jennifer Woodroffe introduced the concept last September as part of wider efforts to develop their pupils into more independent learners. The school had already transferred Year 7 to a skills-based curriculum to ease pupils' transition from primary, and was keen to improve things in the later years, too.

"We are in quite a deprived area, and some of our pupils really need to have longer, more in-depth learning opportunities to take things in, rather than jumping from one lesson to the next," Woodroffe says.

So pupils in Years 9 and 10 were brought together for six lessons a week in non-core GCSE subjects. Year 11 pupils were left out of the first year because they had already started their GCSE courses.

"(Vertical learning) has had a number of positive effects," says Woodroffe. "Their coursework is incredibly promising and their results and predicted grades are already higher than those of our Year 11 pupils.

"It also gives them more of an insight into what GCSEs are all about and more opportunities to pick the subjects they want."

But it was the positive relationships that grew between pupils of different ages and the heightened sense of community within the school that prompted Woodroffe to consider extending the concept to tutoring.

Community cohesion

In September, Abertillery will adopt Barnard's preferred model of mixed-age tutorial groups with a 2:18 tutor-pupil ratio.

But the school will also train its non-teaching staff in co-tutor roles so that everybody from the back-office staff to the head's secretary will be taking responsibility for pupils, strengthening community feeling.

Woodroffe says that all staff and some Year 11 pupils at Abertillery will have mentoring training. But at City Academy Bristol this approach was a step too far.

A trial using the academy's associate staff as learning facilitators was unsuccessful and only a handful have remained in post, although a new trial will start in September.

"You have to be careful," Kelly says. "These people are not teachers and they do not necessarily go into schools to have contact with pupils. I don't think the right training programme was put in place to make them feel as confident as they could. You have to hand-pick the ones you think are right for the role."

Barnard estimates that around 500 schools in the UK have adopted vertical tutoring or teaching approaches, and reckons that every school will go vertical within five years - virtually all academies have either done so or are considering it in some form, he claims.

Although his main arguments for the concept are educational in nature, he believes politics will also play a part. "I think it will happen because schools think it is the right thing to do," he says. "Education secretaries always see a broken system with poor-quality teaching. That's absolutely not true. They try to fix something that's broken.

"A system has to be holistic; we should be nurturing, caring for, looking after our pupils, but what we currently have is a factory system. Vertical tutoring redefines what it is to care.

"We have to have a system that negates the negative influence of government on teaching and learning. The horizontal system cannot do that, but the vertical system can build in learning relationships that negate the worst effects of a minister's machinations."


Peter Barnard believes training is essential. "It is simply no good going vertical without a deep understanding of the management principles and values that drive this transformation, yet this is what many schools do," he says. "Many think that vertical tutoring is a simple change to the pastoral system. However, the way schools prepare staff, students and parents is critical.

"What vertical tutoring does is provide a new learning support operation that replaces the factory model and adds operational coherence. It builds value in and requires no social programmes and no cost other than time to learn. It transforms the culture of schools by positively building inclusive learning relationships and partnerships.

"Schools that self-train rarely get vertical tutoring right and this causes problems.

"Some schools have reverted back to year systems, having been ignorant of the way vertical tutoring works. This is explained by saying, 'vertical tutoring never worked for us'.

"What schools mean is they never bothered with effective training and assumed they knew it all innately. This is always an unnecessary tragedy but then school systems are built on assumptions."


Peter Barnard claims that schools where staff are fully informed, supported and trained in vertical learning:

form a far more effective and integrated management team structure that is focused on learning and teaching;

have tutors who are confident and effective in their critical mentoring role;

see improvements in both student self-esteem and learning outcomes through enhanced leadershipmentoring opportunities for all;

create a more effective learning support operation that redefines what it is to care and focuses on "the whole child";

build improved parent partnership and organisationally support the vital role played by families and peers in learning;

experience a happier and more successful school that implicitly understands and promotes well-being;

celebrate the effectiveness of staff, children and parents where all understand the operational learning and support system and contribute to it;

give students deep support and learning opportunities that will make them more effective learners;

raise standards by understanding the important link between tutoring and the quality of teaching and learning.


Make sure everybody is on board. Explain it clearly to governors and parents and make sure staff are properly trained and prepared, and understand the concept fully.

Do your research. Contact schools that have experience and arrange a visit.

Keep staff and governors informed throughout the process.

Arrange for staff discussion and training.

Arrange a visit for pupils to talk to others in vertical tutoring groups and to give feedback.

Arrange for feedback to pupils and parents.

Set a clear timetable for change.


Mistakes schools make:

1. Visiting schools that use vertical tutoring without first understanding what the system is. This can mean they are unable to tell good practice from bad practice.

2. This is often followed by using a local school to tell staff all about their version of vertical tutoring. There are no versions. Thus staff are not properly briefed and trained. The school attempts to do the training rather than the leading. This always means system mistakes and these can be expensive.

3. Schools try to make vertical tutoring "their own" or adapt it. This is OK but schools need to realise that vertical tutoring is built on values and management principles that do not flex easily. Vertical tutoring has to be managed. Innovation comes later.

4. Schools need to reduce tutor group size. This must be based not on friendship patterns but on group balance. Schools often ignore this as a sop to parents and students. This is weak management and naive.

5. The way students engage with their new tutor for the first time is critical and does not involve a vertical tutoring launch day or indeed a vertical session. This is an important aspect that schools so easily mess up.

6. Schools must adopt the idea of lead tutors being chosen from all staff regardless of their status and their role in the school. No one should join the school without being trained and expected to be a tutor. This applies to non-teaching staff, too. The tutors must understand their role at a deep level.

7. Tutor time should never be at the start of the day, after lunch or at the end of the day.

8. Tutors do not teach programmes or deliver PSHE, social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) and citizenship. Vertical tutoring is SEAL. This does not mean tutors cannot engage with an issue as needed.

9. The school must identify times when school, family and tutee should meet to analyse student performance and identify strategies for improvement. Academic tutorial days or weeks are not appropriate because critical times for learning support appear at critical times through-out the school year.

10. Academic tutorials or deep learning conversations involving parents, tutees and tutors should take about 40 minutes each and should not occur on a single day but within a single week.

11. Tutorials should be about 20-25 minutes a day. Building in tutorial time throughout the year as an alternative is bad practice and inappropriate.

12. Vertical tutoring is not just a change to the pastoral system, it unites the pastoral and the academic within the tutor role.

13. Year 7 must never be left out of a vertical tutoring system. They are key beneficiaries. Sixth forms should always be involved whenever possible.

14. Just meeting tutees for an hour once a week or as individuals for an hour once a week for "academic mentoring" is not a good idea.


Peter Barnard's website:

Peter Barnard's profile on TES Resources: http:bit.lyNMMDw5.

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