One of the many painful tasks facing headteachers is organising classes for the next year. At a time of falling rolls, conflicting parental demands become even more significant, and there is often a conflict between the needs of an individual pupil and the interests of the class. Parents now think of themselves as clients, and begin to exert subtle pressures to obtain the greatest advantage for their child. This can be most crudely seen when they demand that under no circumstances should Tarquin be taught by the shy-seeming Ms Blush or Jemima be forced to sit with the odious Wayne. Some stalwart heads refuse to bow to pressure.
A predecessor used to claim that she never took into account parents' dislikes of particular children or teachers when organising her next year's classes. She would not entertain the idea of a parent objecting to her child being in Mrs Jones' class, or being in the same class as "that hooligan Shayne". Determined not to be influenced by such negative pressures, she nevertheless placated parents, and kept her all-important school numbers high, by paradoxically accepting positive preferences. The number of productive friendships and admiration of particular teachers' talents suddenly blossomed. ("Fiona would just go into a terminal decline if she was split up from Terrence, and since Mrs Smith is so gifted with macrame, and Jocasta has such a talent in this field, she must be in her class.") Some heads take the easy way out by keeping classes together for the whole of their school life. However, this can build up a toxicity of its own, with some classes developing an anti-authoritarian slant which can daunt the most confident teacher. As the class rolls forward, there may be a wave of teacher resignations carried before them. Better to divide and rule.
One neighbouring school considered a revolution in class structure.
Desperate to raise the Sats results, the head set the children in ability groups for both numeracy and literacy, essentially creating a watered-down secondary school system from the 1950s. Not surprisingly, the parents of children in the top sets were pleased, but the other two-thirds were angry, resulting in a slow leakage to neighbouring schools.
Given the problems, it is little wonder that some heads have toyed with seemingly bizarre schemes. Over a late night drink at the last heads' residential Inset, one swore that he was going to satisfy all requirements of his pushy parents, go the whole hog and introduce single-sex, streamed classes. Another said for all the good that would do, he should go for astrological groups. Another colleague claimed to have inadvertently invented the Alan Titchmarsh system. Dismissing vague thoughts that this had something to do with the mushroom management theory (kept in the dark with loads of manure raining down on you) I was amused to hear that by insisting that children be assigned to classes on a computer-generated random basis, he had ended up with a class where the children's names had an uncanny theme. The girls were Poppy, Marigold, Daisy, Rosie, Honeysuckle, Blossom and Fleur. It was when he went on to claim that the boys were Sam Spud, Jasper Carrot, Michael Marrow, Ben Bean... that disbelief set in.
When guidance is required, one resorts to research, and the Literacy Trust supplies illumination (www.literacytrust.org.uk). Kutnick et al, in their 2005 research on classes, conclude that no one has discovered a school organisation panacea. Not surprisingly, no single form of class organisation benefits all children equally. Children in lower ability sets, predominantly boys, are often unmotivated and disruptive. Gender specific groups may help boys with English and modern languages, and girls with maths and sciences, but at the expense of more complex influences. Mixed classes also have disadvantages. Their helpful advice is to be constantly evaluative and responsive to emerging needs. If it works for you, keep it; if not, change it.
But perhaps concerns about classes and grouping are really passe. The immediate future is set to be personalised, individually-tailored learning with the aid of an ICT learning platform. The DfES standards website urges us all to think creatively about school organisation and personalised education in which all pupils can flourish as individuals. Maybe that means individuals will determine their own groupings when necessary.
Bob Aston is head of a junior school in Kent