All for one and one for all
Tom and Joshua are reading a wildlife magazine. Tom is a tall 11-year-old, Joshua is five, very much the infant. Tom, however, is clearly impressed by Joshua's advanced vocabulary. "He's really good with words," he exclaims, "just listen!" He turns to Joshua - this is obviously a set-piece routine.
Tom: "What are an octopus's legs called?" Joshua (in slow motion): "Ten-ta-cles."
Tom: "What do you get if you eat too much?" Joshua: "In-di-ges-tion."
"See!" says Tom triumphantly. "I told you so." Tom is proud of the progress of his protege and claims some of the glory for himself.
These boys attend the village school at Beckwithshaw, near Harrogate, where 56 children are divided into two classes, infant and junior. They are engaged in "Bookworms" - an afternoon activity in which older children choose books to read and talk about with younger partners, as a way of building long-term relationships.
Tom and Joshua are at opposite ends of the primary age range but they are used to mixing with different year groups - in a two-class school there is no option. Staff in this school, which enjoys excellent inspection reports, are unequivocal about the benefits of mixed-age groupings. Pupils socialise across age bands and respect each other's views, younger children learn from their elders, older children enjoy a sense of responsibility and hone their communication skills.
Mixed-year groups are common in a high proportion of schools and in some rural counties the majority of primary pupils are taught in schools with only two or three teachers. So it is frustrating when a Government initiative such as the National Literacy Strategy is addressed to teachers of single-year groups. Advice for mixed-age groups has been added as a four-sides-of-A4 afterthought.
This treatment confirms their beliefs that mixed-age teaching is being sidelined. Certainly, ever since 1992's "Three Wise Men" report, commissioned by then Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke, which "officially" encouraged primary teachers to move towards greater specialisation and more whole-class teaching, the cards seem to have been stacked against mixed-age schooling, and many governing bodies avoid it. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools (and one of the report's authors) still questions its fitness to deliver the national curriculum effectively, despite a lack of evidence either way.
On the other hand, Professor Neville Bennett at the School of Education, Exeter University, says mixed-aged, mixed-ability settings can point the way forward in the use of social interaction to enhance achievement.
And Mike Smit, English primary adviser for North Yorkshire, says that in terms of collaborative work, sharing of language and the requirement to write for other audiences - key components of the literacy strategy - mixed-age classes, particularly in small schools, are "way ahead of the pack".
As well as the daily literacy hour, Beckwithshaw's junior class has an hour per week of sustained writing with subject co-ordinator Sarah Storey. The day I visited she was spending the first half-hour evaluating poems about the playground in autumn, written in a whole-class exercise. She moved from child to child, picking out phrases to praise - "an autumn riot", a "whirlwind of leaves" , "the leaves drowning silently in a Black Sea (Tarmac)" - making no distinction between seven and 11-year-olds. Such an exercise, she says, enhances all the pupil's aspirations and builds respect for each other's skills.
Broomhaugh Church of England first school in Riding Mill, near Hexham, Northumberland - one of the "beacon schools" named by Professor Michael Barber's Standards and Effectiveness Unit - has 82 pupils split into three classes: Reception, Years 1 and 2, and Years 3 and 4.
For some activities children remain in their classes. I saw older children learning about Islam through role-play. Those chosen to be tourist officers had to give information to pilgrims wishing to visit Mecca. One Year 4 boy was displaying endless reserve and patience as a tourist officer with a special needs girl in Year 3. Having to pass on information in simpler and more lucid terms was a challenging oral exercise. It also gave his teacher a chance to assess how well he had understood the concepts he was trying to explain.
For literacy and numeracy, however, children are moved around the school into highly differentiated groups - some Year 1s into Reception, some Year 2s joining Years 3 and 4, and so on. Within that, children are also moved into different groups for spelling, reading and handwriting. To maintain quality of teaching, however, Rona Lackenby, the head and full-time teacher to class three, believes work has to be highly focused.
The curriculum is adapted accordingly and the literacy hour clock dispensed with, as is the concept of different groups working on different pieces of work. Mrs Lackenby likes a specific focus for the hour, albeit with differentiated activities. For example, if the focus from the whole-class text is speech marks, then each group's work will relate to speech marks. Each child's progress is reviewed half-termly.
Although the planning seems complex, Mrs Lackenby says a small, mixed-age school can create great flexibility to the pupils' benefit. It is hard work, but the rewards can be huge. Constant interaction across the age range means children learn to appreciate the contributions of younger and older pupils, and at any one time they are either being stretched or consolidating their learning. Such achievements are underpinned by activities such as sports day, when 10 teams of eight pupils - each with pupils from Reception to Year 4 - run all the races in relay, so the oldest are as dependent on the youngest as the young on their elders.
From the beginning the children learn to aspire beyond their years, and to encourage other children in their work, whatever their age. Teachers such as Mrs Lackenby believe that these are invaluable lifeskills, which help to underpin future achievement.
THE BENEFITS OF MIXED-AGED CLASSES
* They can create a great sense of community - a community of sharing - with more mixed-age friendships.
* Older children can develop a greater sense of responsibility, helping younger children as they themselves were helped.
* It allows many opportunities for stretching the more able, for collaborative work and for celebrating variety.
LITERACY HOUR TIPS
* Develop a rolling programme in which objectives across year groups are matched to themes. l Make a cut-and-paste version of the national literacy framework, taking sections from different year groups and bring them together. This ensures coverage of the objectives over two years. Draw links between objectives.
* Try a "literacy hour plus" (75 to 90 mins), in which a class works in two parallel groups (say Years 34 and Years 56) with the extra time for separate text level work. Group one works on its own while group two has its text level session, and so on.