National Curriculum in Focus
National Curriculum in Focus is dedicated to unpicking the new curriculum and how to understand and develop the requirements of the new programmes of study for mathematics. You can find previous features in this series here
A focus on mixed-age classes
The aims of the National Curriculum are of vital importance to the whole curriculum, and in the NCETM booklets Teaching for Mastery: questions, tasks and activities to support assessment, a direct line is drawn between teaching for mastery and one of the aims of the National Curriculum:
'In line with the curricula of many high performing jurisdictions, the National Curriculum emphasises the importance of all pupils mastering the content taught each year and discourages the acceleration of pupils into content from subsequent years. The current National Curriculum document says:
'The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace...' (National Curriculum page 3)
Progress in mathematics learning each year should be assessed according to the extent to which pupils are gaining a deep understanding of the content taught for that year…'
The challenge to move all children through at ‘broadly the same pace’ is a challenge for all teachers but mixed-age classes bring an additional dimension to the challenge. Some support for schools and teachers, as they explore this idea and seek to make sense of ‘teaching for mastery’, is available through the work of the Maths Hubs programme. Two national projects have been working in this area since early in the last school year: one exploring what can be learnt from teachers in Shanghai, and a second using adapted textbooks from Singapore. Both these projects focus exclusively on single-age classes; teachers in Shanghai work only in single-age classes and the textbooks are written for single year groups.
The structure of single-age classes fits neatly with the aim of moving pupils through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace, especially when the curriculum has been set out on a year by year basis, as it has with the mathematics curriculum. However, many schools do not have the option of this structure and this presents a challenge: the challenge of teaching for mastery in mixed-age classes. In response to this, two Maths Hubs in the South-West, Jurassic and Cornwall and West Devon, have contributed funding to a small scale action research project, with a Lesson Study structure, involving eighteen teachers from across Devon, including the city of Plymouth. The project was led by the maths team of Babcock LDP, who support school education in Devon.
The key research question for the project was:
What does teaching for mastery look like in a mixed-age class?
The full final report from the project, which contains case studies exemplifying the findings, along with video clips of teachers talking about aspects of their findings from the project can be found here.
Summary of the findings
- Mixed-age classes occur in different schools for different reasons, but mainly fall into one of the following four categories:
- Only class in the school with this age range – could be two, three or four year groups in the class (small school)
- One age group split between two classes, one with an older year group and one with a younger year group
- Three parallel classes in the school with this age range – two year groups in each class (one and a half form entry)
- Mixed-age class (two year groups) in a school with two single age classes for the same age range (one and a half form entry)
- Some of the approaches for teaching for mastery in mixed-age classes are generally applicable whilst others are dependent on the context of the mixed-age class. For all schools, teaching for mastery requires teachers both to believe that all the children can learn the mathematics for their year group and to create equitable classrooms where this belief can be realised.
- Teachers in the project focussed on adjusting the structure of lessons in order to cater for a mixed-age class and found the following:
- For two-year age groups, the curriculum is closely matched and it is often possible to start with the class together and then attend to the specific year group objectives through a number of different strategies including questioning, the use of different numbers in tasks and the use of rich tasks with different expectations related to outcomes.
- One school chose to restructure the school day and split maths between two sessions, either side of morning break, so that the children could all work on the same rich task in the first session and then specific needs could be addressed after break (Beaford video clip 2) – see the case study below
- When the teachers participating in the research project decided they needed to teach the year groups separately, they chose to do this in one of four ways:
- Separate teaching input on the same day – different strategies were used to support this, such as a ten minute task for one age group so that the teacher could set up the independent work with the other age group before focussing her teaching for the lesson back on the first age group.
- Separate teaching input on alternate days
- Separate teaching input as needed – this was used in the class with three age groups
- Separating the year groups and sending the older year group to join a matching single-age class – this was an option in some of the bigger schools.
- Different approaches have different benefits, different challenges and require additional strategies to be used to ensure they are successful. Flexibility is crucial; decisions about how to structure the lessons can depend on the different age groups in the class, the structure of the school, the mathematical learning behaviours and current attainment of the children in the class and the maths being taught. Whilst some teachers preferred to provide a separate input on a regular basis, many of the teachers preferred to start with the whole class together wherever possible, but for all the teachers they were prepared to work in different ways when they decided it was necessary.
- One of the things all the teachers commented on was that they had developed a far better understanding of the expectations for each year group in their class as a result of the project.
- In all classes, children needed to be able to work without adult support. Independent work means independent of an adult: supporting the children to work collaboratively with each other was one of the most effective ways to ensure they could work on mathematically worthwhile tasks without adult support. This was one of the aspects of quality first teaching highlighted during the project as having a particular part to play in supporting teaching for mastery in a mixed-age class. Others were:
- Elicitation tasks used at the start of a teaching sequence
- Pre-teaching used to support children so they could engage with the mathematics in a sequence.
- Rapid support used to intervene when misconceptions and gaps in understanding were identified
- Questioning targeted to reflect the year-group expectations
- Models and images to demonstrate understanding
- Talk for learning and rich tasks to support independent work and allowing different age groups to start together
- Feedback and marking to support the learning of different age groups in a class.
Whilst these were identified as important in mixed-age classes, all of these elements of quality first teaching are also relevant to single-age classes and so the findings in the report have a relevance to all teachers.
The report contains case studies detailing different approaches, such as the one below:
Case Study: Beaford Primary School
The three teachers who teach Y1/2, Y3/4 and Y5/6 worked together on the project and came to the conclusion that they needed to restructure the timetable. This was agreed with the head teacher after much discussion.
They now run two maths sessions each day. The first session focuses on a high quality first teach and takes place for 35 - 40 minutes before morning break and the second runs after break lasting about 30 minutes. This second session allows for the teacher and teaching assistant (if available) to identify needs and to provide immediate intervention and support for deepening of understanding. This operates for four days a week; on Fridays only the first session takes place in order to allow time for other areas of the curriculum.
It is a flexible model; break time is used to look at work and reflect upon formative assessment from the first session, so that groups of children can be identified for support/deepening. Decisions made about the second session could be:
- Whole class continue with task started in the first session - teacher observes learning and supports/challenges individuals or makes formative assessments
- Some of the class continue with the same task - groups identified from formative assessment in the first session are taught by the class teacher and/or teaching assistant
- Some of class continue with the same task - groups identified from formative assessment in previous sessions are taught by the teacher/ teaching assistant to address misconceptions or gaps
- Children, who do not require support/extension/more time linked to the initial task, practise key maths skills: multiplication tables, number bonds, playing games to develop fluency.
- Teacher/teaching assistant pre-teach to ensure children will be able to access learning on the following day.
The NCETM and both Maths Hubs participating in this project are keen to hear from other schools who have experience of teaching for mastery approaches in mixed-age classes. There is a discussion currently running in the Maths Café. You can also email the project researchers directly.
Page header by Romain Vignes (adapted), in the public domain