Mixed-age classes aren't easy to teach. Sara Bubb asks two primary teachers how they manage
How old are the children in your class? Teaching 10 subjects to 30 children brings huge pressures, but new teachers with more than one year group in their classes face a particular sort of demand. One new teacher admitted:
"I freaked when I found out it was a split class."
Why do some schools have mixed-age classes? Sometimes it's a matter of numbers. Small rural schools may consist of just two classes - the juniors and the infants. What is more common is to have 45 children in each age group; there are too many for one class and too few for two. That's why many schools have two small reception classes and then combine Years 1 and 2, Years 3 and 4 and Years 5 and 6. The alternative is to have one single and one mixed age class, which becomes a nightmare when it comes to planning for progression through a curriculum.
There was a time when vertical or family grouping was fashionable - and it still is in some countries. The argument is that single-age groups create pressure to expect all the children of a certain age to achieve the same standard. It encourages whole-class teaching rather than a more child-centred approach.
Mixed-age classes give older children the opportunity to take on nurturing roles and the younger children have role models. The trouble starts when the older children set bad examples.
Vertical grouping allows more flexibility to separate children with personality clashes and balance classes in terms of gender and special needs. It's an advantage for summer-born children who don't always have to be the youngest in the class.
Low-achieving older children may not feel the failures they would in a mono-aged class and can help the younger ones. But mixed-age classes are harder for the teacher.
Children's concentration spans and interests will vary hugely. Groupings are tough. Do you keep the children in their years or group them by ability, or a bit of both? It's important for the whole class to gel and not seem like separate entities.
Then there's the furniture to consider. The sheer physical size of some children means that you may need to have a mix of table and chair sizes.
One teacher admits to having to arrange her Year 5 and 6 children on height because some shot up so much during the Year.
Planning is hard because the national curriculum is organised by year group not by what children are ready for. PE can be particularly hard to differentiate because of the range of physical development especially in the younger groups.
SOPHIE PARKER TEACHES A MIXED YEARS 1 AND 2 CLASS AT SUDBOURNE PRIMARY IN BRIXTON, SOUTH LONDON:
At the beginning of the Year, children coming up from reception have quite a hard first term as everything changes - routines, expectations, style of teaching. They go from free-choice activities to structured lessons. I don't want to do a full literacy hour with the Year 1s yet; I'd prefer to cover components in reception style teaching - but I can't because half of the class are in Year 2.
Luckily I have an excellent support teacher who can take children for small group work. It's difficult to keep your finger on the different interventions for groups in Years 1 and 2, and to know how the children are getting on. During key stage 1 Sats, the Year 2 children are the focus of attention, which is tough on the Year 1s. You'll need to differentiate, even if you're just teaching one year group, but the range is greater with two. I have some children who don't recognise their letter sounds and others who are reading chapter books.
Benefits? It's good for the children's social skills to mix with different age groups. My experience as a teacher becomes broader because I get the opportunity to teach Years 1 2 and see the magic of early learning. They are both great Year groups and it's fascinating to be part of their development.
KATIE GIBBS TEACHES A MIXED YEARS 5 AND 6 CLASS AT SUDBOURNE PRIMARY SCHOOL IN BRIXTON, SOUTH LONDON:
There are three Years 5-6 classes so we plan together, which spreads the load and is very stimulating. The biggest problem is that the range of attainment in my class is so wide: reading ages range from 7.6 years to over 14 years so I really need to keep my wits about me for differentiated work. The more able Year 5 children benefit because they are able to "chase the tail" of the older children.
The experiences of the children in Year 5 are different to those in Year 6.
For example, my Year 5s are weaker on co-ordinates than I expected so I've had to go back and then take them on. Luckily, the curriculum is really well organised because the school is grouped into Y12, Y34, and Y56 so we alternate topics on a two-year cycle. This works well but the Year 6 children need to have completed and revised all topics for Sats and I need to anticipate what the Year 6 children might be tested on. I often double up objectives by for instance writing letters that include an argument.
My expectations of the older children will be different to the younger ones. Sometimes I'll start with the Year 5 numeracy plans but cut the number of days down and then fit in the Year 6 unit. All the children seem to adapt to change more easily. Where classes stay the same children don't cope with change so well - like a new child coming into the class. However, there seems a huge difference between the most mature Year 6 girls and the least mature Year 5 boys.
I have clear expectations for all the children and make allowances only for individuals rather than an age group.
Katie's useful websites:
* www.peprimary.co.uk - good ideas for PE
* www.primarygames.co.uk - excellent if you have an interactive whiteboard and can play on the Internet
* www.funbrain.com - the maths brain part has differentiated games. They're quick which is great for those with short attention spans
* www.bbc.co.ukschoolsscienceclips - excellent for revision of topics by the whole class or just a small group
* www.cleo.net.uk - lots of good ideas