Why schools should do a double take on separating twins

Common practice of splitting siblings up may need a rethink

Adi Bloom

James Ellis had just taken over as headteacher of Biggin Hill Primary when he was asked what his school's policy on twins was. It didn't have one. But every other school Mr Ellis had worked in had been clear on the matter: they split twins up.

The twins' mother, however, was adamant that her children should stay together. They went to a small nursery, and the family applied to single-form-entry primaries as their first choices. Biggin Hill, in Bromley, South London, was their fourth choice.

One in every 35 children is now a multiple-birth child. So, this September, a large number of teachers will be faced with matching - or, of course, non-matching - faces in their classes. But the issue of twin policy is complicated, in part because it is so often unwritten and unofficial.

In a survey of 1,173 parents of twins, conducted by the Twins and Multiple Births Association, 44 per cent of parents visiting prospective primaries said they were unable to find out if schools had an official policy on placing twins in the same class. A further 15 per cent were only given this information at some of schools they visited. Only 4 per cent of parents said that all the schools had a written policy. By contrast, when a school did have a policy, 81 per cent of parents said it was verbal.

Two of a kind

According to Pat Preedy, these policies are often based on misconceptions. Professor Preedy, an early years specialist at Curtin University in Western Australia and the University of Winchester in Hampshire, has conducted research into the schooling of multiple-birth children.

She says twin relationships can take different forms. At one end are closely coupled twins: the type who dress the same and speak only to each other. At the other end are individuals who hate being part of a multiple-birth grouping and, in extreme cases, avoid speaking to each other for decades.

In the middle are what Professor Preedy calls "mature dependants". These children have a relaxed relationship with one another: they are close but they also have different friends and are happy doing different things.

"Whether you separate them or not very much depends on what their relationship is," Professor Preedy says. She adds, however, that 80 per cent of children in her research had not even slept apart before beginning primary school.

"You have a double whammy of separation from parent or carer and separation from each other," she says. "Very often, they need to be together to start with. They like just to be able to look at what the other's doing. If one's upset, it very often will settle them just to see where the other is."

`Shocked and disappointed'

Professor Preedy's comments are echoed by Claire Styles, whose twins, Ada and Bryn, will start school this September. The south-east London primary attended by the children's older sister has an unwritten policy of putting twins in different classes.

"I'm obviously quite disappointed and shocked and surprised," Ms Styles says. She adds that her children will often play individually at nursery, but will nonetheless be able to tell her exactly what their sibling was doing during the day.

"They're very confident, but it's obvious that some of that confidence comes from having the other there," she says. "They will be less independent without the other one. They have separate friends but they also have a twin bond. We don't necessarily want to keep them together for ever but this is too soon."

Similar arguments were made to Mr Ellis at Biggin Hill. "The more I read about it, the more I realised that having that one-size-fits-all policy wasn't right for the school," he says. "There may be twins who've never known not being together. So to split them up in their first experience of school life would create anxiety issues, which can have a big impact on them going through the school."

Mr Ellis has now agreed to allow the twins to start school in the same class. And he will meet with their parents each term to discuss whether this is still the best option.

"It's about lines of communication," he says. "It's not a them-and-us scenario. We work together."

Tips for teaching multiple-birth children

Remember the biggest issue is identity, not separation.

Always call children by their names, rather than "twins".

Ensure you can tell identical twins apart, using clothing or hairstyles if necessary.

Speak to parents to understand what experiences children have had together and as individuals.

Consider letting children start in the same class, even if you separate them later.

If you do separate them, be aware that a more dominant twin may struggle more than a less dominant twin.

Do not be surprised if one twin finds it easier to make friends than the other.

Remember that if one child is at home ill, the other may become upset.

Hold separate parent consultations for each child.

Make sure that you compare children to their peers rather than one another.

Praise them for individual successes, rather than those relative to one another.

Remember that the majority of twins and almost all triplets are born prematurely, which can have an impact on their development.

Always treat pupils as individuals, but do not forget that they are part of a unit.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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