- Published: 28/01/2020
Following our podcast on managing maths in mixed age classes from autumn 2019, we caught up with one of the teachers interviewed, Matt Curtis, at the first meeting of a Work Group addressing mixed age planning in the context of teaching for mastery. The Work Group is local to East Midlands West Maths Hub but part of a national project, so there are similar groups running all over the country. Matt is leading the Work Group and brings to bear his experience of teaching in a particular primary mixed age context, as well as knowledge about other models.
In the Work Group we visited, teachers agreed that mixed age classes can be a huge benefit to primary children socially. They also say that most parts of the curriculum can be fairly easily managed for mixed age classes on a two-year cycle, but that the maths curriculum is uniquely difficult to manage because of the way maths concepts build upon previous learning. It makes no sense, for example, for a child to try Year 4 division tasks before they have understood the Year 3 objectives. The National Curriculum year group objectives for maths reflect this.
Which schools do mixed age teachers work in?
Being a teacher of a mixed age class can be a lonely experience. You might find yourself one of a group of teachers teaching parallel classes in a bigger school, where there is potential for collaborative planning and support. But what was evident when we visited the Work Group of mixed age teachers in Nottingham was the huge variety of settings that mixed age teachers work in. And that many are effectively working on the mixed age issue almost alone.
Here are some of the settings worked in by teachers at the Work Group meeting:
- Only mixed age teacher in a large school
- Teacher of class of 19 children spanning Years 3-6 in a tiny school
- Teacher of Year 1/2 class in a school with intake of 45. For maths only, the two year groups are organised into a Year 1 class, a Year 2 class and one mixed age class. Children in the mixed age class were selected for their ability to work with less teacher support
- Teacher of mixed Reception/Year 1 class
- Teacher of class of 32 children spanning Years 4-6 where the Year 6 children are taught by the TA for maths
- Maths Lead teaching single age group Year 6 in a school of otherwise mixed age classes
- Teacher of Year 3/4 in a larger school (intake: 45) with three parallel classes across each pair of year groups.
It seems that many schools are managing their small or awkwardly sized intakes by minimising the number of mixed age classes. Others are making a virtue of having mixed age classes across the whole school with colleagues working together on planning and managing the curriculum. The Work Group seems to fulfil a need to share practice across the variety of settings.
TA support is also hugely variable, and this seems to play a significant role in how maths teaching can be organised. Some teachers in the Work Group have TA support for all maths lessons whilst others have none at all, or their TA support is tied to a specific child.
How can CPD offer something that works in such a variety of settings?
With such hugely disparate experiences in the room, how can any sort of professional development hope to provide something useful to all the teachers there? This is where the Work Group model of professional development is key. While the Work Group Lead provides a structure and ideas, participants are encouraged to share their own practice, and discuss their schools’ ways of organising the curriculum.
Critically, they are also asked to reflect on what is working well in their own setting, and how things might be improved using ideas from other schools. There is no attempt to promote a particular model, but rather a recognition that each teacher in the room has their own unique set of constraints within which to work: size of school; their own level of influence within the school; TA support available; textbooks and schemes used by the school; and whether the school is looking for a change or just to improve the current way of organising the curriculum.
At the meeting we attended in Nottingham, Matt was particularly alert to teachers in the room who, due to their unique situations, might not get as much from the discussion. He encouraged these teachers to work together.
Three broad models for organising the curriculum were discussed at the session:
The first of these is adopted by schools that mostly teach in mixed age classes, but for maths feel that the classes need to be taught in year groups so that objectives can be covered sequentially.
Many teachers at the Work Group were operating the second of these models. There was some agreement that although children were covering the correct objectives, teachers felt they were doing a lot of input and didn’t have enough time to work with the children, which gave them less close knowledge of their learning.
Matt’s school teaches a mixed age curriculum. The whole class covers objectives from two years simultaneously (e.g. adding and subtracting using formal written methods using three-digit numbers in Year 3 and four-digit numbers in Year 4) This is repeated the following year so that each child covers the same objectives for two years running – a detailed description of how this works can be found in Matt’s blog.
There is acknowledgement that all of these models involve compromise. The constraints of individual schools make some impossible or impractical. Some models rely heavily on TA support, or on extra time being given to maths. Published maths schemes and textbooks, participants agreed, don’t really work for mixed age classes other than as a resource to dip in to, so all the models have planning implications too. Among the dozen teachers in the room, there were many different tweaks and variations on the basic models. And a strong sense of willingness to tweak a model to make it fit, rather than dwelling on all the obstacles.
What’s next for the Work Group?
Following the first Work Group session, participant teachers will continue to work on the issues raised, within their own schools – reflecting on their school’s model with their own staff and testing the water for tweaks, improvements or whole scale change. The second and third meetings of the Work Group, later in the year, will support them with any changes they decide to make in school.
How did teachers benefit from attending the first Work Group meeting?
When asked what they had gained from attending, teachers said:
‘Different models to process and try out to develop mixed age teaching – how to adapt’
‘Understanding that one size doesn’t fit all – I need to find a way that suits my school’
‘You don’t rigorously have to stick to year group objectives as long as all are covered by the end’
‘That I overcomplicate maths planning and there are ways of streamlining what I do to be more effective’
‘Discussions around different mixed age approaches, and sharing resources’
‘Recognising that there are also benefits to mixed age classes and how to maximise them’
‘Looking at year group objectives and working out where they overlap and follow on’
‘Great networking opportunity – a community created’
‘Talking to others teaching mixed Year 3/4. Having confidence in what I am doing. Gave me tools to adapt my teaching’.
When asked how they would disseminate what they had learned, some teachers commented:
‘Different approaches and our options as a team moving forwards’
‘I will write an improvement plan and try out two ways of teaching the three year groups whilst pushing for more support’
‘I will lead a meeting on my findings and see if people in school would be willing to trial them’.
Resources used in this Work Group session:
The Work Group spent time looking at:
- the NCETM Progression Maps for KS1 and KS2. These maps follow the development of every maths topic across Years 1-6
- the White Rose National Curriculum progression documents. These are for mixed year group teaching and do a similar job.
Other suggested resources:
- Teaching for Mastery – Mixed Age Classes, a report from Babcock (who run school improvement services in the South West), which contains a number of case studies of schools addressing the mixed age issue in different ways
- Teaching for mastery in a mixed age class, an NCETM case study on a tiny school in Northamptonshire, which looks at Years 2-6 in the same maths class
- Managing maths in mixed-age classes, an NCETM podcast featuring an interview with Matt, and another Work Group Lead, Emma Parr, who have experience of different models of mixed age teaching.
If you are interested in working with your local Maths Hub, you can find their contact details here.