The mixture as before and after
For many village primaries, vertical grouping is a necessary and accepted part of life. The question is, though, to what lengths a bigger school should go in trying to avoid it. The tendency in formal education, for good or ill, is to think in terms of homogeneous age groups, and schools which are big enough to run their year groups separately usually choose to do so, even if it means having widely differing class sizes.
The reality of life is that because primary class sizes are rising - an issue brought into sharp focus by this month's teacher union conferences - and "floating" teachers have all but disappeared, more and more primaries face the prospect of having to mix age groups and, for example, run three mixed Year 3-4 classes instead of two Year 3 and two Year 4.
Typical of the position in which the heads of medium-sized primaries find themselves was that faced a couple of years ago by Geoff Peake at Carrfield primary in Barnsley. With 40 pupils in Year 1 and the same in Year 2, he decided that the two extreme options - four classes of 20 or two of 40 - were untenable. Thus, with colleagues, he decided to run three classes of 27 or so, made up from both years. At first, though, Carrfield teachers did not go for three parallel classes but decided to try to stick as closely as possible to age grouping. Thus of the three classes, one contained the oldest children in Year 2; one had a mixture of young Year 2s and older Year 1s, and one had the youngest Year 1s.
This arrangement, quite common especially in pre-national curriculum days, simply did not work for Carrfield. There was a particular problem with key stage 1 tests, which had, of course, to be taken by the whole of one class and half the children in another. "They just hadn't covered the same ground - they hadn't had the same programme of work. All I would say is that if you go for that method of organisation, then you have to make sure that you address that particular issue."
The following year, therefore, the classes were reformed. "This time we made three almost identical classes, carefully balanced for age, sex, ability and, as far as possible, for friendship groups."
This is how these three classes - now Year 3-4 and still the only mixed-age ones in the school - still operate. Geoff Peake explains that they follow the programme of the upper of the two age groups. "So the younger children will eventually have completed the Year 6 programme a year early, and there will be the opportunity to look at anything they are weak on during their final year."
The conventional worry about vertical grouping is to do with differentiation. How do you cope with the spread from lower ability young children to high-flying older ones?
Geoff Peake, though, feels that this is not so problematic as was the syllabus coverage difficulty he experienced when he ran his earlier "old, middle, young" system. Differentiation, he believes, is the big primary school challenge anyway, and if the school has tackled it properly, then it can accommodate the extra spread across two year groups. "It's the same in every class. A single year group may have children with a six-year spread of ability in maths. "
Rachel Stockdale, one of the mixed age-group class teachers, felt the same way. "It's a bit harder because of the wider range but we gain in having three teachers who can plan together. Maths is the biggest problem, and that's easier now we have a good scheme." (The school uses the "Steps" scheme from Collins. ) In each class, most of the maths ability groups contain children from both years, and now that the children have had so much time together it is evident that teachers have, for most of the time at least, stopped mentally labelling children by age.
Like most heads who have done this, Geoff Peake found that parents had to be won over. "They were worried about children being separated from their friends, and they were also thinking back to their own schooldays, with everyone sitting facing the teacher."
Significantly, despite his belief that good classroom management can remove most of the problems, Geoff Peake is clear that "mixing age groups is not something we would deliberately choose if it could easily be avoided".