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The Belfry CE VA Primary School, Overstrand

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Mixed Age Classes

Across North Norfolk, many village schools are classed as small schools (under 150 on roll). The Belfry has five classrooms into which we fit seven year groups from 4 to 11 years old. This means mixed-year-group classes are the norm, because we are funded on exact pupil numbers, not how many classes we have. At The Belfry our future 'Planned Admission Number' is 15 children per year group. 


Small schools have many characteristics that make them the school of choice for local parents and they contribute to a wonderful childhood, but it's important to understand how the class structures work. This is an issue that often raises some questions and hopefully this section will answer some of them!


Do small schools have small classes?

Generally no. Per-pupil funding means classrooms and teachers need to be used to their capacity in most cases. High schools and beyond can support smaller class sizes because they attract greater funding. We aim for no more than 30 in a class and in our youngest classes this is a statutory requirement. 


Which age groups are split? It depends upon the number of children in each year group - and can vary from year to year as larger or smaller year groups progress through the school. Currently Year 2 and Year 5 have been split across two classes, and Reception is a single year group class. We work with the numbers that we have. It is worth remembering that although most classes have a range of at least two years, every child is an individual - and our teachers are skilled at accounting for these differences. 


How are the classes split? The key factor is confidence, not social or academic attainment. The numbers in the year group make some difference, and the aptitude of the child makes some difference but the key factor really is confidence. If a child is academically capable but lacks confidence then being in a class with far older children who appear to be able to do far more can be a real blow to their self-esteem and thus their progress. They might do far better in a class where they are the big fish in a small pond and are setting the standards.


Equally a child who enjoys the challenge and struggle of learning and has lots of confidence could find being the oldest in a class of children who are still acquiring the earlier skills and knowledge could find themselves bored. They might do far better in a class where they are a small fish in a big pond and they relish the challenge.


There are therefore many factors involved and they must be based on what we see every day in the school environment. These decisions are not rushed and teachers factor in a whole range of observations before discussing their class recommendations with school leaders.


Who makes the decision? Ideally home and school would work together, but sometimes the numbers mean that this is not possible and we just have to take a decision. This is our obligation as professionals - sometimes the choices are easy and sometimes they are hard but they are always taken with the best intentions and based on sound professional knowledge. It is worth bearing in mind if you choose the Belfry as your school - it may happen. However we would say that your child will do well in whatever class they are in!


Won't they lose their friends? Two answers. a) No and b) They get to strengthen their social skills.


a) No. What we see again and again is that friendships continue across mixed age classes. The whole school meet at play and at lunch and those friendships continue. And new friendships develop. This is important for later life, especially high school, where they will be in different form groups, subject classes and lunch schedules. 


b) Imagine being in the same group of children for 7 years, in a single year group class. Your social skills would not need to develop and you'd always have the same narrative role - you'd always be 'the youngest', or 'the best at art' or 'the quietest' etc. However by being in mixed age classes the composition of the classes changes every year, and so children test and develop their social skills afresh, and they take on new roles. One year you could be a child who finds maths tricky, and the next you are the child who sets the standards for maths in a class! You can go from being the oldest who finds everything easy to being the youngest who has to work that little bit harder. Nobody benefits from staying the same - change and the support we offer is what allows the children to develop and succeed.


Won't they be taught a different curriculum? Mixed age classes are tricky for the teachers both in terms of planning and delivery; however it's a challenge we are well acquainted with. The challenge means that teachers have to adapt and change also and although it is tough it does make for better teachers! Your child will be taught what they are entitled to be taught, as set out in the National Curriculum - how that happens across mixed age classes is down to planning and organisation. The National Curriculum itself does not specify year-by-year learning in most subjects as it is understood that in general children do not learn this way or fit into those pigeonholes.


Under our new CUSP curriculum (details on the curriculum pages) we focus on teaching the age-appropriate 'disciplinary skills' of, for example, a historian or geographer, rather than getting too caught up in the the 'substantive knowledge' of the Romans' civilisation vs. the Ancient Egyptians'. This negates the risk of children missing critical parts of the taught curriculum depending on which class they are in. 


I'm still not convinced! And that's fine too - we are a small school and that brings amazing benefits, but some people see them as drawbacks. The school's governors are also involved annually in determining class sizes and composition. We see mixed-age classes as a 'feature' of the school, not a 'bug' (to use Computing terms). The challenge and support the children and teachers get from mixed age classes benefits everyone. It is harder at times but the benefits are very real. We are lucky in North Norfolk in that there so many different types of school available. Some are even smaller and have four year groups in a class, and some are larger and have single year groups, so the choice for parents and children is there.