Twins, triplets, quadruplets... with multiple births on the rise, they're becoming a regular thing in our classrooms. But how do you ensure they thrive as individuals? Hannah Frankel reports
Seeing double in the classroom is not normally a good thing. But for those who teach twins, especially identical twins, it is par for the course.
Despite the unique issues it throws up, and the rise in multiple births over the past 20 years, there is still little formal advice about how twins learn best. "It is amazing that so little has been done," say David Hay and Pat Preedy in their study, Meeting the educational needs of multiple birth children.
And while teachers are left in the dark, the number of twins in their classrooms continues to rise. About one in 34 babies is born a twin or triplet today, compared to one in 52 in 1980, according to the Office of National Statistics - an increase that is largely put down to more successful fertility treatments, higher survival rates for smaller babies and women giving birth later in life.
The causes may be clear, but the guidelines for teachers are still distinctly murky, especially in relation to what Professors Hay and Preedy describe as "whether, why and when twins or higher multiples should be in the same or different classes".
The Grange Junior School in Hartford, Cheshire, is faced with this dilemma more than most. With 20 sets of twins in the school, including four pairs who started in September, it has grown used to the age-old question of "to split or not to split?"
"Some twins, especially when starting school, seem to flourish better with the close support of their brother or sister," says Stephen Bennett, headmaster. "Others are keen to stop being one of a pair as soon as possible."
Currently eight sets of twins are in the same form and 12 are separate. It is made possible through The Grange's three-form entry, which gives it the flexibility to split up twins or even triplets - a luxury not usually available to smaller schools with just one class per year.
"The golden rule, of course, is to treat them as the individuals they are,"
adds Stephen. "It's essential to never talk in such terms as 'they're doing fine' or refer to 'the sporty one' or 'the academic one'. We don't make comparisons and at parents' evenings we offer separate appointments for each twin."
Jannette Bloor is head of performing arts at The Grange Senior School and mother of identical five-year-olds, Hannah and Emma, who attend the junior school. "We wanted to separate the twins because they can look pretty similar in their uniform and we felt they needed a sense of individuality,"
she explains. "They are sometimes referred to as 'the twins', so we want to help others perceive them as different and give them a chance to flourish separately."
It is crucial that teachers try to refer to the girls by their correct names and avoid too many comparisons, adds Jannette.
It is a similar story at Briar Hill Primary School in Northampton, which has 11 sets of twins and a set of triplets among its 264 pupils. "I think there must be something in the water," says Cath Keohane, the head, an identical twin herself. "When I was at school, my sister and I were in the same class and thought of as one, even though we're so different."
Cath is happy to accommodate all parental requests, but if asked for advice, suggests that twins are taught separately. "With the triplets, we have had to have two in one class and one in another, but I think they work best when given the space to be individuals."
However, there is no hard evidence that separation is preferable. Preedy and Hay recognise that the most common reason for separation is "to develop individuality", but found no proof that it actually achieves this. Indeed, recent British and Dutch studies have found that keeping twins together may be beneficial, or at least not detrimental.
Instead of automatically splitting twins into separate classes, Preedy and Hay recommend careful consideration and consultation between parents and schools, especially as most multiple birth children will have had little or no experience of separation before starting school. Decisions, they say, should be based on the relationship between the siblings. Generally, twins fit into three camps: those that are close to a fault, who may find separation traumatic but beneficial; "mature dependents" who will be happy together or apart, and "extreme individuals" who usually hate being in the same class but may benefit from working together in some cases.
"Teachers and parents can help by praising each child for their achievements and helping multiple birth children to be pleased when their co-multiple has success," the report advises.
"Parents and schools must also realise the unintended consequences of such actions as putting both twins in for a competitive place at a selective entry school and what will happen if one gets in and the other just misses out."
Jane Denton, director of the Multiple Births Foundation, agrees. "Instead of saying twins should be separated, schools should look at each circumstance," she says. "The fundamental principle is to treat multiples as individuals."
Perhaps now - when there are approximately 9,000 multiple births a year in the UK - trainee teachers should receive more information about multiples, especially as they are more likely to have ADHD than single children.
Another idea being mooted is to create a school policy that recognises their prevalence and particular needs. As Hay and Preedy say: "As more multiples are born, and more with disabilities are included into regular schools, then it becomes more vital that information on the particular issues of multiples are included in the curriculum."
TO SPLIT OR NOT TO SPLIT?
Multiple birth children are likely to benefit from separation when: * One pupil is markedly more able than the other.
* One pupil perceives themselves as failing.
* One sibling is levelling up or down so that they can be kept together.
* Multiples work together to become particularly disruptive.
* One or both pupils are dependent, unable to mix or relate with others.
* Multiples exhibit intense competitiveness.
* One or both pupils go to opposite extremes to prove their "differentness".
* There is a lack of privacy where one sibling constantly reports to parents the activities and progress of the other.
Reasons for keeping multiples together in the same class:
* Pupils need the support of each other, particularly if they have not been separated before.
* If one pupil is dominant, they can lose confidence if they can't organise their sibling.
* Parents may compare their children more if they are in different classes, especially if one teacher is very different or one pupil is making more progress than the other.
* Teachers can understand how pupils operate as multiples when they are in the same class.
Source: "Twins in school" by Gleeson, Hay, Johnston and Theobald; and "Meeting the educational needs of pre-school and primary aged twins and higher multiples" by Preedy.
For more information visit www.twinsandmultiples.org