Should we separate children by age?

Is teaching children in year groups out of date?

Katz et al (1990) note that “Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them.” (Katz, Evangelou and Hartman, 1990, p 10)

I saw something interesting on the Parenting Today by ATTN: Facebook page and wondered what this could mean for our classes?

They say that some schools have stopped grouping kids by age and it’s making a big difference.

A mixed age class is sometimes referred to as a composite or a multi-age class and in small rural schools, permanent mixed aged classes are a necessity because of the low number of children. Uuneven intake and declining enrolment means some schools have to teach mixed age classes. But introducing mixed age classes to a school that has never had them can fill some parents with fear and outrage.

But what are they afraid of? The norm in most schools tends to be children grouped by age and this is really for convenience and easier for a school to manage.

As Greenfield (2011) says,

conventional age-grouping is the combined result of an accident of history, political ideology and professional inertia, and that no formal policy exists in England which serves to prescribe how schools should be organised.

The fact is, abilities and development levels vary enormously within a single year.  Research has shown that children taught in mixed-age classes are not disadvantaged academically.

Where the differences in age are much larger than just neighbouring year groups, then there are many advantages socially as younger and older pupils can mix in highly supportive ways. Older pupils can teach younger pupils and sometimes younger pupils can teach the older children too. ‘Family’ grouping where there are wider age differences can work anyway because it offers the opportunity for all children to work at their individual level, regardless of age.

Little (2006a) notes that we are out of step because the age-group paradigm is from another era. Multi-age grouping preceded age-grouping because “the age-group paradigm arose principally in industrial areas as a result of rural-urban migration and the need to accommodate larger numbers of children within existing structures.”

As Greenfield notes, “In my professional experience I have seen many children disadvantaged because of their position on the age spectrum who may have benefited from flexible class organisation.”

Isn’t it time to be more flexible and stop fixating on age? There is no other organisation where people are separated into year groups – vertical teaching definitely has its place.


Katz, L. G., Evangelou, D. and Hartman, J. A. (1990) The Case for Mixed Age Grouping in Early Childhood Education. Washington: National Association of the Education of Young Children.

Little, A. W. (2006a) Education for All: Multigrade Realities and Histories, in A. W. Little (ed.) Education for All and Multigrade Teaching. Dordrecht: Springer.

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