A step in the right direction

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

Darren Evans

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 research into the benefits of vertical learning strategies, but the number of schools going vertical in some form is growing fast.

It began 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 in England and a particularly popular model has Year 9-11 (S2-4) 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 "broken" and promote negative learning relationships between pupils built on friendship and loyalty. But vertical tutoring 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 says this small 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 vital 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 (P7), for example, or when pupils are about to sit their GCSEs in Year 11 (S4).

"There's no real parent partnership in the horizontal system," says Mr 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."

Mr 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 back-up 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 (S1-3) curriculum at the school will be shortened to two years and key stage 4 (S4-5) extended to three.

"We have constructed a curriculum that will help different pupils succeed at different times," Ms 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 (S2) 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.

Mr 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 change, 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 says schools where staff are informed, supported and trained in vertical learning:

- form a much more effective management team structure that is focused on learning and teaching;

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

- see benefits in both student self-esteem and learning outcomes through enhanced leadershipmentoring opportunities;

- 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 support the vital role played by families and peers in learning;

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

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

- give students deep support and learning opportunities;

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

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Darren Evans

Latest stories