The issue - The sweet and sour of pick-and-mix classes

12th September 2014 at 01:00
Moving pupils between groups as they progress through primary school is common practice, but how does it affect their learning?

Late in the summer term, I arrived to pick up my son from his "transition day" at primary school and joined the other parents as they stood outside the classroom, taking photos of the class lists for next term that were pinned to the window. Scanning the list, I realised that my son's two closest friends wouldn't be with him in Year 1.

My first reaction was surprise: it hadn't occurred to me that the school would change the class groups after the Reception year. This turned to shock when I discovered that they did it annually. Wasn't it a bit disruptive? And why were the classes being mixed up?

The answer arrived the following day. Parents were sent a letter explaining that "classes have been carefully balanced to give each child the best chance to be happy at school and to move on with their learning". This sounded like a reasonable aim, but it was light on detail. Was mixing common practice?

Well, yes and no. It turns out that there is no government guidance on whether schools should mix up classes during primary education. Many schools do it - the majority in fact - but for a variety of reasons and with varying frequency.

According to the parents and primary teachers I have spoken to, mixing classes can be intended to:

  • even out ability levels;
  • balance special educational needs and behaviour;
  • achieve a gender balance;
  • separate difficult combinations of children;
  • pair children with teachers and support staff they are more likely to get on with;
  • level out the number of parent volunteers.
    • Each of these considerations can present a minefield for teachers, but many schools attempt to address several of them in the same move.

      As for frequency, some schools make changes only when necessary, such as when new starters arrive. Others mix up classes at fixed points - between Years 3 and 4, for example. A few, like my son's school, do it every year.

      When mixing does take place, some parents worry about how their child will cope without their best friends. But others feel that the benefits of a well-mixed class outweigh any negatives.

      Yet those negatives are worthy of some consideration. Quieter children are easy to overlook, and they may become distressed if they are separated from close friends. More importantly, the upheaval caused by moving to a new class might have an impact on their learning. The start of school is all about who sits next to whom, so surely keeping classmates together means children can get on with learning without feeling anxious. Student happiness and well-being is vital to progress, as explored recently in TES ("Aiming to please", Feature, 20 June).

      In the US, it seems the benefits of stability are beginning to win out, particularly for students from poorer backgrounds. A teacher in Portland, Oregon, tells me about a movement called "looping", where teachers - usually in low-income districts - take the same class for two consecutive years. These schools have found that keeping the teacher and class together leads to consistency and less back-to-school anxiety, which in turn improves relations between parents and teachers and aids a smooth relationship with external agencies.

      In the loop

      Although this model is based on a teacher remaining with a class, advocates argue that a steady class grouping is just as important. Handing over to a new teacher is easier, it is believed, if the class is already bonded. You can pass on knowledge about which pupils work well together and so on.

      The flip side of this is that keeping a class intact gives children little opportunity to reinvent themselves. A quiet child might see a new group as an opportunity to reveal their outgoing side. Likewise, if a pupil does need to be moved to a different class in a school that doesn't practise mixing, then making changes to a class group at the end of the year, without singling out special cases, seems fairer.

      A change is as good as a rest

      Back to my son's school. When I talk to parents of older children, I hear many positive tales of mixing: some feel it prevents cliques from developing; others see it as an opportunity for their children to make new friends every year. Many also feel more confident that their children will cope well with the transition to secondary school.

      Some parents still disagree, of course, at my son's school and many others. Each summer, there is an inevitable flurry of angst-ridden Facebook updates from parents who are unhappy about new class groups. Some even go as far as complaining to the school or requesting changes.

      Personally, I can see the benefits of mixing up classes. After a week, my son seemed to have adapted well. I would, however, recommend that where mixing does occur, schools ensure the following to put parents' minds at rest:

      • transparency, early on, about plans to change classes;
      • opportunities for parents to raise concerns before the lists are finalised;
      • chances to hear from parents of older children at the school;
      • feedback about why children have been placed with a particular teacher or group;
      • reassurance that pupils will still have the chance to see their former classmates.
        • Fiona Hughes is a freelance writer from Exeter

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