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Primary Schools (Mixed-Age Teaching)

Volume 33: debated on Tuesday 7 December 1982

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asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science if he will encourage local education authorities to reduce the extent of mixed-age teaching in primary schools.

Some primary schools have so few pupils and teachers that there is no choice but to arrange children in classes which cover more than one age group. The Department's circular 2/81, however, already urges local education authorities to reduce mixed-age teaching where possible.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, will he confirm that Her Majesty's Inspectorate says that in more than one-third of authorities there has been an increase in mixed-age teaching and that this is damaging to the children involved?

Mixed-age teaching is one of the penalties where local authorities delay the closure of schools by retaining small classes.

This has nothing to do with Pontius Pilate. It is to do with the birth rate. Pontius Pilate was not involved in that, whatever else he may have been involved in. The hon. Gentleman confuses him with Herod. The reason for falling rolls is the falling birth rate. If it is not dealt with by bringing children together in economic units, mixed-age teaching is part of the penalty.

Leaving all that aside, does my hon. Friend agree that there is much to be said for flexibility in assigning children to classes rather than inflexibly enforcing only a 12-month age band in each class?

I have always been noted for my flexibility. I take my hon. Friend's point. The 1978 HMI report on primary schools, however, showed that if 25 or more children from two or more age groups are taught together their results in reading and mathematics are lower than when the children are taught in separate age groups.

Does the Minister agree that many teachers can teach mixed-age groups with enthusiasm and skill, especially in infant classes, and that this may be highly desirable? Does he also agree, however, that it is undesirable to force teachers to teach mixed-age groups when they have neither the enthusiasm nor the skill to do so.

I agree entirely. The decision how classes are organised must be for the individual school. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras, South (Mr. Dobson) is a governor of the Argyle junior mixed and infants school in his constituency. As that school has mixed-age teaching, I shall be interested to hear what happens when he raises this matter there.