Friends united?

21st September 2007 at 01:00
There are different schools of thought on the pros and cons of moving pupils around as they change year groups. Susan Young explains

You may have got to grips with the names of your class, but have you got a feel yet for the kind of year you're going to share with them? One new pupil in the mix can transform the chemistry of a class, and if you teach in a school that routinely mixes up groupings every year, you can expect the unexpected.

The composition of a class can make a real difference to the experience of the pupils and the teacher, and yet there is no consensus or research on whether it is better for one group of children to move up their school together, or to change classmates every September.

Heads tend to have their own strong opinions, partly formed by the perceived horrors of selling an unexpected change perhaps forced by a behaviour problem in one class to a group of resistant parents.

Michael Jackson, headteacher of Seagrave Primary in Nottingham, believes there are many benefits in routinely moving pupils round. "I think it's good because it exposes them to new friends with whom they might otherwise never have a chance to develop a closer relationship.

"Plenty of parents and staff are against it because they feel insecure children will not cope well with the upheaval. Well I'm a glass-is-half-full person and believe it will prepare them for real life where they have to be adaptable to change," he says. "They'll still have a few of their old classmates and there are probably a couple of friends in that bunch with whom they go up into the new class. Also at the end of the year there are kids who everyone agrees must be separated next year. Therefore, if you mix everyone up, those individuals won't be singled out as a problem."

There may be problems with one or two sensitive children who are upset by a big mix up, but, says Michael, hopefully the new teacher will meet their emotional need as soon as it's recognised.

David Tuck, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, prefers not to move children around unless he has to, and tries to base class mixes on social and behavioural issues and achievement.

He says: "I think it depends on the cohort more than anything else. My school has quite high mobility during the course of the year. We take them in reception and it's a bit of a gamble really we don't know what their ability level is, or what they are like socially and so on. At the end of reception, we look at them and say: 'would it work better if this person was moved to that class?' But we don't want to single anyone out. If a class works we try to let it go through school. For most children the important thing is stability. As far as possible you don't move them unless you really have to."

But when changes are made, David, on a year out from Dallow Primary School in Luton, Bedfordshire, thinks parents worry about it more than the children. "What I usually say to parents is give it a couple of weeks. If it doesn't work come to see me again and we'll review the situation. I have only ever had to change it once, because the child gets used to it," he says.

Many heads would deliberately ring the changes more often. Alourie Dutton, who retired as head of Busbridge Infant School in Godalming, Surrey, in July after 40 years' teaching, is all in favour of keeping classes fresh.

Busbridge has mixed-age classes, so she tried to keep friendship groups together, but in general Alourie thinks children are a lot more adaptable than they are given credit for. "Classes sometimes go stale. You might move class and keep friendship groups together for three or four children and sometimes that isn't good enough. Friends don't always work well together, and sometimes it's the parents who want them to be friends, not the children.

"Changes can benefit the structure of the class and behaviour. Healthy competition in there can be good. Make it a bit of a challenge it can get rather too cosy."

Headteachers may be unconcerned about moving children away from their friends, but parents have some influential support for their worries. Simon Pratt Adams, an education researcher at London Metropolitan University, believes schools underestimate the effect that splitting up friendships has on pupils, particularly if they are moving to a new environment.

In a study of pupils moving to secondary school, he found a "low priority" given to this aspect of transfer. "Our study draws attention to the practices of teachers and school administrators and their distance from children's feelings and experiences of friendships, and in particular their anticipation of fear and loneliness in the transition stage," it says. And more fuel for parental anxieties comes from Oliver James, the child psychologist and The TES Magazine columnist, who is less than convinced by the idea that mixing children up helps them become adaptable, and prepares them for adult life.

"This sounds to me utterly stupid and is certainly not based on any scientific evidence I know of. It's as ill-conceived as the idea that 18-month or two year-old children need to learn to be sociable and share toys which is total nonsense," he says. "It's a typical example of imposing an adult idea on children. The idea that they need to be exposed to different sorts of children makes me suspicious that it's a cover for trying to split up groups of children and pretend they're doing it for the children's sake. At the least, you should only do it with the agreement of the child."

His final thought: "As for the need to learn to be adaptable the later we have to adapt to the sick society we live in, the better."


rene Marwood, head of Easingwold Community Primary School in North Yorkshire, believes that parents react more to class changes than the children.

"Some parents seem to think they can come in and request a particular teacher. That's very difficult. The reasons usually aren't educational," she says.

Like many other heads, Irene's had to split classes because year groups don't lend themselves to conventionally-sized groupings: she has been juggling with a Year 3 of 55 pupils, against an average of 42 in the others. But change is good, she says. "It's refreshing. Children benefit from different experiences. Every teacher delivers in a different way and children are more adaptable than we give them credit for.

"It's got to be what works. If we can get the staff-pupil ratio right, with the pupils being secure and happy and with friendship groups sitting together, well and good. If you can't well, teachers will notice changing behaviour if there are problems."

Friendship is not something she takes into consideration. "I've got two daughters and just because they are friends today they are not necessarily friends tomorrow. Obviously you want them to be happy and secure with people they like. But class is for working."

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